By the American Heart Association
Creating a heart-healthy approach to life may be one of the best investments women can make.
Minimizing cardiovascular disease risk and paying attention to overall health can reduce future medical costs and make the years ahead more enjoyable.
“Your health is your most important asset,” said Jennifer Mieres, M.D., a professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
Though awareness about women’s heart health has increased through programs such as the association’s “Go Red for Women,” heart disease remains the leading cause of death for women in the United States.3
Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease at some point in their lives, according to current American Heart Association statistics.1
“It’s an equal opportunity killer,” Mieres said. “Women in mid-life are definitely at the highest risk. It’s a volatile time for women, as the menopause transition is marked by changes in body composition, fat distribution and an increase in cholesterol levels.”
Get checkups and knowing your numbers
Eighty percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable, including heart disease and stroke,4 according to current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association.
Visit your health care provider each year to assess your risk and take action. Prepare for the appointment, much as you would when gathering documents to meet with a financial advisor, Mieres said.
“You go to your accountant at tax time, and you don’t show up empty-handed,” she said. Be prepared to discuss any family history of heart disease or other concerns. “You should not be passive. You should have a conversation.”
One place to start is with the American Heart Association’s Life Simple 7, factors and behaviors proven to have a big impact on heart health. They are: managing blood pressure; controlling cholesterol; reducing blood sugar; getting physically active; eating a healthy diet; maintaining a healthy weight; and quitting smoking.
Become knowledgeable of your key health numbers, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. For example, blood pressure of less than 120 over 80 is considered normal.5
Second-hand smoke also should be minimized, Mieres said.
A healthy weight often is measured by body mass index, which is a calculation using weight in relation to height to estimate body fat percentage. Mieres offered this additional simple method for keeping track of body fat: Use a tape measure to make sure your waist circumference is no more than half your height in inches. Those who store fat in the mid-section have a higher risk for heart disease, she said.
Choose to move and eat healthy
Physical activity doesn’t have to include a fancy gym membership or organized classes. Walking, jogging, cycling, or dancing to get your heart rate up all count toward your weekly exercise goal. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week.
“Even ten-minute increments all add up to that 150 minutes,” she said. “Choose to move every day.”
It’s best to spread the activity throughout the week and consider adding muscle strengthening activity at least two days a week.6
Healthy eating means choosing plenty of fruits and vegetables and opting for nuts, legumes, whole grains, skinless poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products and non-tropical vegetable oils. Try to limit saturated fat, red meat, sugar, sodium, added sugars, and processed foods.
One eating plan that encompasses this strategy is the DASH plan, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The plan helps to control blood pressure. The DASH diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet.
“Look for variety in color with fruits and vegetables,” Mieres said, “to ensure you’re getting an assortment of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.”
Try to stock your pantry and refrigerator with healthy foods so easy options are available at meal and snack times or when preparing a lunch to take to work.
Recognize women’s special issues and symptoms
Some heart disease risk factors and symptoms differ for women and men.
Recent research has focused on heart disease linked to pregnancy-related complications. Diabetes and hypertension during pregnancy as well as early delivery have been linked to increased cardiovascular disease risk years later.7
“Pregnancy is a stress test” for the body, a possible marker for heart disease later in life, said Mieres.
Meanwhile, women’s heart attack symptoms may cover a wider spectrum compared with symptoms in men. Women may experience the “classic” heart attack symptoms of chest pressure, chest discomfort or shortness of breath, just as men do.
“But women also may have symptoms such as back pain, usually on the left side; shoulder pain; a fullness in the stomach; or nausea, as signs of an impending heart attack,” cautioned Mieres.
Rest, de-stress and get motivated
Lack of sleep – getting less than six or seven hours per night – is connected to heart disease, research has shown.9 Poor sleep has been linked to high blood pressure and can make it difficult to lose weight and may make you less likely to want to exercise.9
Chronic stress is another area of concern for women. It can lead to behaviors and factors that impact heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inactivity, and overeating.10
To cope with stress , try to take care of yourself by eating healthy foods, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. Consider talking to others about your stress, including a friend, parent, doctor, or counselor.11
In all heart-healthy efforts, it helps to have a partner in the endeavor, which Mieres points out in her book Heart Smart for Women: Six S.T.E.P.S. in Six Weeks to Heart Healthy Living , co-authored with fellow cardiologist Stacey Rosen.
Work with a healthcare provider to find a customized treatment plan that fits your daily life and medical needs. A friend, family member or co-worker also can be a good partner for getting physically active and sticking with a healthy eating plan.
“It’s OK if you fall off the wagon. You have that person to help you get back on track,” said Mieres. “There is strength in numbers.”
Things to Consider:
- Go to an annual medical checkup prepared with information about family heart disease history to discuss with your healthcare provider.
- Emphasize fruits, vegetables, legumes, and skinless poultry and fish as part of a heart-healthy diet.
- Find a friend or family member to help stay on track with physical activity and nutritious eating. Choose to move every day.
1 “Go Red for Women; Causes and Prevention of Heart Disease,” American Heart Association, accessed online July 2019.
2 “Heart Attack Symptoms,” Office on Women’s Health, March 2019.
3 “Women and Heart Disease,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2019.
4 “CDC Prevention Programs,” American Heart Association, May 2018.
5 “Reading the New Blood Pressure Guidelines,” Harvard Medical School, April 2018.
6 “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids,” American Heart Association, April 2018.
7 “Adverse pregnancy outcomes and future maternal cardiovascular disease,” Clinical Cardiology, February 2018.
8 “Sleep and Sleep Disorders,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 2018.
9 “Sleep, Women and Heart Disease,” American Heart Association, accessed online July 2019.
10 “Stress and Heart Health,” American Heart Association, April 2018.
11 "Coping With Stress,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 2018.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.