February is for Valentines and, appropriately, for Heart Health Month and Go Red! Heart disease kills a half million American women each year. That figure exceeds the next seven causes of death combined, including breast cancer. Five times as many women die from heart disease as from breast cancer. In recognition of the importance of heart health for women, the American Heart Association has designated February as Heart Health Month and has rolled out its Go Red campaign to increase awareness of women’s risks for heart disease.
Historically, women are the caregivers and do an excellent job at getting their husbands and partners to the doctor for heart health checks. Somehow, they seem to forget about their own hearts. I am here to remind women that they are at a greater risk than their husband of dying from a heart attack. This increased risk is because a woman’s symptoms tend to be less obvious than a man’s. For most women, heart disease is a chronic illness that starts early in life. It is strongly related to lifestyle choices which put stress on the heart. Major risk factors are:
- High cholesterol
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor nutrition
- Family history of early coronary artery disease (mother or sister before age 65/brother or father before age 55)
If, as a woman, you fall into one or more of these categories, change can seem overwhelming. If it’s complicated, make it simple. I suggest you work to change one or two at a time and don’t do it alone. Get your healthcare provider on board, along with your partner, your friends or your children. Many people struggle with some or all of these risk factors, so you can probably find someone to partner with who can help support you to meet your goals. Here are some tips:
- If you smoke, quit. It’s very hard, but you can do it! There are many techniques and medications to help you; however, the most important ingredient is your commitment.
- Weight loss, a low sodium diet, exercise, reducing stress and medications that target high blood pressure are recommended ways to decrease your high blood pressure.
- If you have high cholesterol, low saturated fat diets such as the Mediterranean Diet and exercise will improve your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In fact, the Mediterranean Diet may be as powerful as some of our most potent medications, the so-called statins, at reducing your risk of heart disease. Healthy cholesterol levels are defined as total cholesterol <200; LDL (bad cholesterol) <130; and, if you have heart disease, your LDL should be less than 126 or Hgb A1c >6.5 (this gives us an estimate of your average blood sugars over 1-3 months). Losing weight, or even better keeping the weight off to begin with, will significantly reduce your chances of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, along with reducing your risk of dementia (Alzheimer’s), kidney failure and stroke.
- Sedentary lifestyles lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. The recommended activity regime to maintain health is 150 minutes weekly or 30 minutes of moderate, aerobic exercise five days a week. It is OK if you break this up into 10-15 minute time slots. You also need two days a week of strength training in the form of free weights, nautilus equipment, knee bends, push-ups, etc…. 10-15 minutes is fine. If you are exercising for weight loss, you need to increase exercise time to 300 minutes per week. Moderate exercise can be brisk walking, swimming, biking, snow shoeing, skiing, line dancing or many other activities. And remember; always take the stairs as it’s a quick way to get in an aerobic workout. Wear a pedometer and walk 10,000 steps a day to better health. Exercise is the best and cheapest medicine we can prescribe for you.
This February, be heart healthy – make changes to reduce your risk of heart disease and encourage others as well.
Phaedra McDonough is a Nurse Practitioner with The Center for Cardiovascular Health at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She can be reached at (802) 275-3699.