Heart disease is the top killer of women. The majority of women between the ages of 40 and 60 have at least one risk factor for the disease. But many do not realize it. They also don’t know about the sometimes subtle signals of a heart attack. That’s why the American Heart Association created Go Red for Women day. It is a day we set aside specifically for women on the first Friday in February in order to dispel misconceptions and misinformation and to educate and raise awareness of heart disease and stroke as the number one killers of women.
The groundwork for heart disease can start in your body and in your vessels as early as your 20s, sometimes even earlier. Heart disease can affect the blood vessels of your body and your heart. By affecting blood vessels, it can cause widespread problems all over your body. It can cause atherosclerosis or hardening of arteries which can cause the arteries to become blocked or narrowed which cause problems throughout the body causing stroke, heart attacks, peripheral vascular disease, and heart failure. Commonly, heart disease causing atherosclerosis can include blockage or narrowing of the coronary arteries which are the arteries that supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle itself.
Risk factors for heart disease can be divided into two parts, those risk factors that are a major risk and those that lead to an increased risk. Major risk factors are: high blood pressure or blood cholesterol, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, heredity and age. Factors that could lead to an increased risk are many and they include stress and excessive alcohol consumption. For women, that means more than one drink a day.
Starting at age 20, women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and should have this checked at least every 5 years and possibly more often if you have increased risk factors such as family history of heart attacks at a young age (younger than 50 years of age). One serious red flag is a high level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and a second red flag is low level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which clears arteries.
Knowing your risk factors is vital. The more risk factors you have and the worse they are the greater your risk for heart disease. Once you know your risk factors, you can learn whether you’re at high, intermediate, or low risk for heart disease. Then you can set goals and work with your health care provider to reach them. The following lifestyle changes will put you on the path to a heart-healthy life:
Reach and keep a healthy weight. You’ll reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk, which are three serious risk factors. Belly fat is linked to higher levels of triglycerides, a blood fat that raises your risk for heart disease.
Trim saturated fat and salt from your menu. When you can, trade butter or margarine for olive oil. Swap red meat for seafood, which is a good source of omega-3 fats that help reduce triglycerides, clotting, blood pressure and makes your arteries more pliable preventing atherosclerosis.
Move more. Exercising at a moderate to high intensity for at least 30 to 40 minutes, four to five days a week, can lower your blood pressure and can cause all kinds of healthy effects. It can also strengthen your heart, decrease stress, and lower weight. Adding weight training or resistance exercises two days a week can also increase your metabolism and help maintain a healthy weight.
Quit smoking. Smoking is the most common risk factor for women. It triples your heart attack risk. It may take a few tries to quit. You may need to address your addiction by using a patch or nicotine chewing gum, hypnosis, smoke cessation pills or even acupuncture.
De-stress daily. Visit a friend. Light candles or better yet use flameless flickering candles and listen to mood music. Take a yoga class. A walk on the beach or have a partnered hike in the woods. Putting yourself number one on your “to do” list and finding ways to defuse stress will help slow your breathing and heart rate, as you lower your blood pressure and live a stronger, longer, healthier, and happier life.
Eric J. Uhrik, D.O., is medical director of the Stroke Center at Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center. He has been a practicing neurologist for more than 19 years. Dr. Uhrik is board certified in Neurology, board eligible in Neurocritical Care and certified in Emergency Neurological Life Support. Raritan Bay Medical Center is a N.J. state designated Primary Stroke Center and recently earned The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval® and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Heart-Check mark for Advanced Certification for Primary Stroke Centers. For more information, call the Stroke Center at 732-324-4970 or visit HackensackMeridianHealth.org/HMHhasHeart.
With locations in Perth Amboy and Old Bridge, New Jersey, Raritan Bay Medical Center delivers critical world-class healthcare services care to Monmouth and Middlesex County residents. As providers of first-class healthcare in the areas of stroke, cardiology, cancer, physical rehabilitation, pulmonary rehabilitation, pediatric medicine, Raritan Bay Medical Center continues to stay on the forefront of medicine.
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