By Lorna Stewart, MD
One in four adults in the U.S. will die from heart disease – the leading cause of death for both men and women. This is an important statistic as for years, heart disease was considered a “man’s” issue; women needn’t worry. We now know this is not true, and women need to be as educated and proactive as men in managing their risks and preventing heart disease.
Additionally, a recent study suggests that having ideal heart health metrics in midlife is associated with a decreased risk of dementia in late life.
Know your Risks
It starts with getting a complete picture of your health plus knowledge about your family history. The American Heart Association recommends women schedule an annual wellness exam with their physician to review risk factors that can be managed, as well as those that have an impact on heart disease (such as age, gender, etc.) Your physician uses data based on your individual numbers across a variety of tests, such as blood pressure, total cholesterol, blood sugar and Body Mass Index (BMI) score to determine your risk of developing heart disease. Additionally, your physician can work with you to manage your risks, either through lifestyle modifications or medication.
We also know that the risk of heart disease increases with age and family history – factors your physician will consider during your wellness exam.
Know the Signs
Heart disease is the broad term for a number of conditions, including coronary artery disease, arrythmia, congenital heart defects, diseases and infections of the heart. Symptoms vary across the type of heart condition—and between men and women.
Many times, adults are unaware of a heart condition until they have a significant event, such as a heart attack or stroke. Chest pain and shortness of breath are common symptoms for men, and while women can experience these as well, women are more likely to have additional symptoms such as nausea and fatigue.
What You Can Do
There are steps you can take to prevent heart disease. Like many other diseases, how we live our lives can have great impact on our future health.
- Stop smoking. Smokers face a 2 to 4-times greater risk for developing heart disease or having a stroke. If you are smoker, the number one thing that you can do to immediately improve your health is to stop. Your doctor can help.
- Get moving. Sedentary lifestyle leads to obesity, diabetes and depression. Exercise helps us lose weight or maintain a healthy one, strengthen our hearts and lungs, improves cholesterol, blood pressure and decreases our chance for diseases including cancer and heart disease. Make time for daily activity and build exercise into your routine.
- Follow a healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet includes a balance of high-fiber food such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts, plus “healthy” fats, like those found in certain fish and avocados. Heart healthy diet also means limiting foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol, such as red meat. Finally, enjoy alcohol in moderation (one glass per day for women, two for men.)
Work with your physician to better understand your risks for developing heart disease, and how to manage them.