Woman First

Heart-Healthy Tips
For Busy Women

by Kathy Sena

Your kids never miss a doctor or dentist appointment. Your boss always receives your reports on time. And your “spare” time is filled with a laundry list of volunteer activities — not to mention laundry.

Sound familiar? You keep your commitments, but in the daily stress of whittling your to-do list, are you forgetting someone? February is American Heart Month. There’s no better time to re-commit to taking good care of your heart.

In the U.S., about 6 million women currently live with heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. The disease is the leading cause of death of American women, killing more than 230,000 each year. The good news is that heart disease takes years to develop, says cardiologist Dearing Johns, MD, director of the women’s heart program at University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.

“It begins early in life and develops slowly, so there is ample opportunity to reverse or stop the disease before the heart attack occurs,” she says. So let’s get started today. Check out these tips for improving your heart health.

Get moving! Let’s face it, we all need to get a move on. According to the National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease (NCWHD), 39 percent of Caucasian women, 57 percent of African American women, 57 percent of Hispanic women, and 49 percent Asian/Pacific Islander women are sedentary and get no leisure-time physical activity.

An inactive lifestyle is a big-time risk factor for heart disease. Don’t have time to exercise? “Don’t think exercise — think action,” suggests Heather Horton, MD, director of the cardiac catheterization lab at The Heart Hospital at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. “Standing is better than sitting, walking is better than standing. Increase physical activity to at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week, even if it’s 10 minutes at a time.”

Watch your cholesterol. As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). When other risk factors such as high blood pressure and smoking are present, the risk of high cholesterol increases even more.
A person’s cholesterol level is also affected by age, sex, heredity and diet. Make sure to get yours tested. If it’s too high, talk with your doctor about how to get it under control through diet and exercise or, if necessary, through medication.

Control diabetes. Women with diabetes are two-to-three times more likely to have heart attacks, according to the NCWHD. If you have diabetes, it’s important to work with your doctor to manage it.

Eat with your heart in mind. Women with excess body fat, especially around the waist, are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke even if they have no other risk factors, says the AHA. Excess weight increases the heart’s workload. It raises blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. It also can make diabetes more likely to develop.

The good news: The AHA says that losing as few as 10 pounds can lower your heart-disease risk. “Healthy food habits can help to reduce three risk factors for heart attack and stroke — high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and excess body weight,” Dr. Horton says. She suggests eating a balanced diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, cereal and grain products, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, beans, nuts, fish, poultry and lean meats.

Eat foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol. And know your snack “triggers” and plan ahead. Be ready with healthy snacks to fight the urge for high-calorie or high-saturated-fat foods.
Get your blood pressure checked. High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload. And when it exists along with obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or diabetes, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases several times.

Chill out. Researchers have noted a relationship between heart disease risk and stress. “Take at least 15 minutes daily for stress reduction — meditation, relaxation, personal reading or prayer,” suggests Johns.

If you drink alcohol, drink moderately. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause heart failure and lead to stroke, says the AHA. But the risk of heart disease in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one drink for women or two drinks for men per day) is lower than in non-drinkers.

Don’t smoke. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day can double your risk of heart attack compared with a non-smoker’s risk, says Carolyn Landolfo, MD a cardiologist with the Medical College of Georgia Health System in Augusta. Ease yourself down the path to becoming a non-smoker by joining a support group, or create your own with a friend who’s also interested in quitting, she suggests.

Use tools such as nicotine gum or “the patch” and consult your physician for other recommendations. Keep an eye on your environment, too, says the AHA. Exposure to other people’s smoke increases the risk of heart disease, even for non-smokers.

Get regular checkups. “Many women who wouldn’t even consider neglecting their annual mammograms and Pap smears sometimes forget that it’s just as important to have their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels checked annually,” Dr. Landolfo says.

Know the warning signs of a heart attack. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back, according to the AHA. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Also look for pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort); breaking out in a cold sweat; nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, women’s most common heart-attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Stay informed. For more information on women and heart disease, visit the following Web sites:

• American Heart Association, www.americanheart.org (click: Healthy Lifestyle).

• National Heart, Lung and Blood institute, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/hearttruth
(click: Lower Heart Disease Risk).

• National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease, www.womenheart.org

Kathy Sena is a freelance writer specializing in family issues.