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Women & Heart Health

February is about heart-health awareness.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.  In fact, 44% of US women are living with some form of heart disease. 

The most common type of heart disease in women is coronary artery disease (CAD), caused by arterial plaque.  Hormonal changes after menopause puts women at a higher risk for developing CAD.  Arrhythmia is another concern for women and occurs when the heart beats too slowly, too fast or irregular, such as atrial fibrillation.  Heart failure is also a concern for women; heart failure is when the heart is too weak to pump enough blood to support internal organs. 

Women should be aware of certain risk factors that lead to heart disease.  High blood pressure is one risk factor.  44.3% of women in the US have high blood pressure, which is 130/80 mm Hg or higher, or are on blood pressure medications.  High blood pressure is often underdiagnosed in women; and black women are more likely than white women to have high blood pressure.  Women who had high blood pressure during pregnancy are twice as likely to develop high blood pressure later in life compared to pregnant women who don’t have high blood pressure.  Other medical conditions include having high cholesterol and diabetes.  Long-term high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart. 

Lifestyle factors that put women at a higher risk for developing heart disease include smoking, being overweight, being physically inactive, drinking too much alcohol, following an unhealthy diet, and high stress.  Some factors around reproductive health and pregnancy that put women at high risk include having an early first period (before 11), early menopause (before 40), polycystic ovarian syndrome, preterm delivery, delivering a baby with either a low birth weight or high birth weight, and gestational diabetes.

To reduce your risk of developing heart disease consider the following habits.

  • Be Physically Active: get moving and try to do at least 2.5 hours of physical activity each week.  In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes or vigorous aerobic activity per week, preferably spread throughout the week.  The AHA also recommends moderate-to high-intensity muscle strengthening, such as resistance weights, on at least two days per week.  John Hopkins recommends yoga for heart health.  They found that the calming exercise of yoga is good for the heart.  Yoga benefits the heart by relaxing the body and mind.  Hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are released when we’re stressed.  These hormones narrow the arteries and increase blood pressure.  Yoga’s deep breathing and mental focus can offset stress.  John Hopkins also notes that the practice of yoga may help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels, as well as heart rate.  This makes yoga a useful lifestyle intervention.

  • Keep a Healthy Weight: obesity greatly increases your risk for heart disease.  It can contribute to high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  Excess body fat also increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes; and diabetics are twice as likely to develop heart disease, or suffer a stroke, than someone who doesn’t have diabetes. 

  • Don’t Smoke or Use Smokeless Tobacco: chemicals in cigarette smoke cause the blood to thicken and form clots inside veins and arteries.  Blockage from a clot can cause a heart attack. 

  • Eat a Heart Healthy Diet: people who consume five servings of vegetables and fruits each day have a lower total mortality, lower cardio disease, lower cancer mortality, and lower respiratory disease mortality.  Add any of these foods to your daily diet:  berries, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, garlic tomatoes, legumes, avocados, olive oil and dark chocolate.  Both the Mediterranean and the Blue Zone diets are highly recommended by many heart doctors.  These diets emphasize a mostly plant-based diet.  Fatty fish, such as salmon, and organic poultry are healthy choices too.   

  • Moderate Alcohol: consume alcohol in moderation, such as one or two glasses of wine with friends and/or with food. 

  • Check Your Numbers: keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar at normal levels.  Talk with your health care team about the numbers from your blood work every time that you visit the office to ensure that you’re on track for optimal health.

Happy heart month, Ladies!





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