Help Your Heart
What Women Can Do to Improve Their Heart Health
For Dr. Anabel Facemire, a cardiologist with Dignity Health Medical Group – Sierra Nevada, women’s heart health is a very personal topic.
“Heart disease took my grandma when I was 12 years old,” Dr. Facemire recalls. “She had a damaged heart valve that was overlooked for many years and she died before the scheduled surgery.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Facemire’s story is all too common. Studies show that heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. and the number one threat to woman’s health, responsible for one in three deaths in women, compared to one in 30 for breast cancer. Yet far too many women don’t take the risk of heart disease seriously.
To help change these facts, February is designated American Heart Month – a time to raise awareness of heart disease and the risk factors that make us more susceptible to it.
This effort is particularly important for women, who often don’t know that the signs and symptoms of heart disease can look and feel different in women versus men.
“The symptoms might differ wildly,” Dr. Facemire explains. “In men, heart disease symptoms include a pressure on and squeezing of the chest that worsens with activity and goes away with rest; cold sweat; or sharp pain in the arms. But in women, this pain — known as angina — might instead be a shortness of breath or pain in the throat, abdomen or back, not always related to exertion but sometimes while resting or sleeping. Fatigue, lightheadedness or nausea are other common symptoms. Some women might have no symptoms at all.”
Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and lack of exercise will increase the risk for heart disease in both men and women. But for women, a history of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) also puts you at higher risk.
In addition, Dr. Facemire says genetics play a role in heart disease. “If your mom had a heart attack before age 60 or your dad had one before age 45, that can also contribute to your risk for heart disease.”
Dr. Facemire encourages all women to take steps to reduce their risk for heart disease, starting with screening. She says all women should be screened for heart disease starting at age 20. Ask your doctor to check your cholesterol and blood pressure and screen for diabetes. Know and keep a record of your numbers. Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 mmHg or less.
Monitor your cholesterol and aim to keep your LDL (“bad cholesterol”) less than 100, triglycerides less than 100, and non-HDL cholesterol (a measure of the bad cholesterol in your blood) less than 150.
To achieve those numbers, Dr. Facemire says it’s important to pay attention to what you eat.
“Get rid of trans fats,” she says. “Avoid fried foods, and packaged foods like cookies, crackers and pastries. A research study done at the Harvard School of Public Health with nearly 33,000 women found that women who eat the most trans fats are three times more likely to develop heart disease. Choose foods rich in antioxidants, minerals and fiber like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, pecans, artichokes, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, beats, red cabbage and beans.”
Reduce the salt in your diet by avoiding added salt as well as salt-rich processed foods. Multiple studies have connected excess salt with inflammation in the lining of the blood vessels, resulting in hypertension.
Reducing stress is also key to improving your heart health. Regular exercise like walking, jogging, biking, hiking, and swimming will not only help prevent heart disease but can also reduce stress, depression, anxiety and anger.
“Women are very good at taking care of others while ignoring themselves,” Dr. Facemire says. “I’m guilty of this problem too. The stress we add to our lives increases the level of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol on a chronic basis set up women for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. Stress also feeds a vicious cycle of turning to food for comfort.”
Dr. Facemire says the most important step for women is to make their own health a priority.
“There are people around you who need you and would love to have you around for a long while,” she says. “Know your risk factors, and familiarize yourself with heart attack and stroke symptoms. Make a heart attack action plan — chew an aspirin as soon as you develop suspicious symptoms, and call a family member, neighbor or friend. If you’re getting worse in the next 10 minutes, don’t hesitate to call 911. Prevention is the best pathway to keep your heart healthy. Start making changes in your lifestyle today and talk to your doctor about heart disease prevention.”
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