You probably don’t think about your heart on an everyday basis. Yes, it beats faster when you chase your children or when your partner brings you roses, and it races during scary movies. You might take it for granted, not really thinking about the ways in which you could be protecting your heart's health. However, just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way toward keeping heart disease from threatening you, your sisters, and your friends.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Heart disease is the leading killer of women. Heart disease, specifically coronary heart disease, kills one in four women. That means taking steps to prevent heart disease should be at the top of every woman's health-related to-do list, even though other health conditions, like breast cancer, might garner greater public awareness and attention.
- Heart health numbers matter. A woman’s heart disease risk is greatest when she has a total cholesterol level higher than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), an LDL cholesterol level higher than 100 mg/dL, or an HDL cholesterol level below 50 mg/dL. For optimal heart health, your triglyceride level (another measure of blood fat) should be below 150 mg/dL and your blood pressure should be below 120/80. You probably get your blood pressure checked every time you go to the doctor—ask for your numbers if the nurse doesn’t offer them. National recommendations suggest having your cholesterol checked every five years after age 20.
- It’s important to know your heart disease risk factors. Are you obese or overweight, a smoker, or physically inactive? Do you have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure? Each one is a risk factor. About three of four women age 40 or older have at least one heart disease risk factor. Each additional risk factor significantly increases your overall risk. Talk with your doctor about how to defuse each one.
- Hormones can influence heart health risk factors. Naturally occurring estrogen provides some protection against heart disease in premenopausal women. This protection decreases after menopause when women lose estrogen and their heart disease risk increases. In addition, the hormones in birth control pills may play a role in heart disease risk. Taking birth control pills may increase heart disease risk in women who smoke, are older than 35 years, or who have other risk factors for heart disease. In healthy women who do not smoke and have no other heart disease risk factors, birth control pills are generally safe.
- Your family health history matters. Your heart disease risk goes up if a close male relative had heart disease before age 55 or if a close female relative had heart disease before age 65. A family history affects the genetic risk you might have inherited and the diet and lifestyle habits you grew up with. You can’t control your genes, but you can cook family favorites in heart-healthy ways or get active with your family.
- Healthy habits prevent heart disease. Did you know that inactive people are nearly twice as likely to have coronary heart disease? You can boost your health by being physically active, achieving a healthy weight, getting your cholesterol levels and blood pressure into the healthy range, and quitting if you smoke.
- Your waistline affects your heart. A body mass index, or BMI, greater than 24.9, combined with a waist measurement greater than 35 inches, will drive up your heart disease risk. A healthy diet and exercise regimen will help get both numbers under control. Your doctor can tell you your BMI, or you can calculate it here: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/english_bmi_calculator/bmi_calculator.html
- Controlling diabetes helps keep your heart healthy. Diabetes increases your heart disease risk because high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in your body. Controlling diabetes, which means getting your blood sugar levels down to the goal you and your doctor set, helps protect your heart from further damage.
- Your heart needs rest. Sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, increase your risk of heart disease. See your doctor if you are having problems falling or staying asleep, or if you have daytime sleepiness and people in your family say you snore excessively; you may need help from a sleep specialist.
- Heart attack symptoms are subtle. Dramatic stereotypes of chest pain and collapse portrayed in movies could blind you to the symptoms of a heart attack in women, which include dizziness, shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest, fainting, back pain, and exhaustion. Don’t hesitate: Call 911 if you experience these warning signs.