Women and heart disease: reducing your risk

Heart disease is the leading killer of American adults today. In fact, twice as many women die from heart disease each year as from all types of cancer combined, including breast cancer.

While some risk factors are unavoidable -- such as having a family or personal history of heart problems or having gone through menopause -- there are plenty of steps you can take to lower your chances of getting heart disease. Here are a few habits you can adopt to help ensure a heart-healthy future:

Don't smoke. The American Heart Association names smoking as the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Smokers are at twice the risk for heart attack as non-smokers, and are more likely to die from a heart attack. Fortunately, smokers' risk for heart disease and stroke returns to normal just two or three years after quitting.

Have your cholesterol checked. Ask for a "simple lipid panel" that shows your HDL (high-density lipoprotein), LDL (low-density lipoprotein), and triglyceride levels. If you have too many LDLs (also called "bad" cholesterol), that can contribute to blockages in your arteries. HDL, or "good" cholesterol, can help carry cholesterol away from your arteries and out of your body. Smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity can lower your HDL level. And having a consistently high level of triglycerides can signal an increased risk of heart disease. Your goal is to have low LDL (under 130), high HDL (over 50), and low triglycerides (under 200). If your numbers are not in the healthy range, ask your health care provider for advice on how to get there.

Have your blood pressure checked regularly. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder, which eventually leads to enlarging and weakening of the heart muscle. Additionally, the buildup of fat and cholesterol in the arteries accelerates, and the arteries stiffen, increasing your chances of developing a heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure usually produces no symptoms until the damage is done, so it's important to monitor yourself. Your blood pressure is considered high if it reads 135 over 85 or greater, and borderline if it reads 130 to 135 over 80 to 85.

Lose weight if needed. Obesity exacerbates other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. To determine if you are obese, multiply your weight in pounds by 705, divide by your height in inches, and then again by your height in inches. This reading is called your "body mass index." If your BMI is between 25 and 29, you are overweight; over 30 is considered obese.

Exercise regularly. Studies show that even moderate exercise, such as walking for half an hour a day, reduces the risk of heart disease by improving circulation, enhancing efficient use of fats and sugars, and helping to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Exercise at least three to four times a week on a regular schedule for at least 30 to 40 minutes at a time.

Reduce stress. Your body responds to stress by making your blood pressure and heart rate higher. This means your heart has to work harder. Over time, high levels of stress can harm your health. If stress is a problem for you, try exercising or other relaxation techniques.

Ask your doctor about the lifestyle modifications that are most appropriate for your heart profile. This is not just folk wisdom -- people following all five major lifestyle recommendations have an 85 percent reduction in their risk of heart disease compared to those who don't. Incorporate good habits into your life, and you'll be well on your way to a healthier heart.

Written by Staff for Duke Medicine    |    Added February 6, 2014