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Women, Take This Doctor's Advice to Heart

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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Happy American Heart Month

February's best-known day is Valentine’s Day, and what with all the heart-shaped things associated with that occasion, it is the perfect month to highlight heart health and share with you what you can do to protect your most precious asset.  Your heart will be there for you during all of your life’s adventures, but heart disease is a big threat to all of us!   Heart disease is America’s number one cause of death

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • 1 in 3 deaths in the US is from heart disease and stroke
  • That's equal to 2,200 deaths per day.
  • 2 million heart attacks and strokes occur each year
  • 80,000,000 adults are affected by heart disease
  • Heart disease & stroke cost the nation $444 billion/year in health care costs and lost economic productivity.
How can you start taking care of your heart? By being mindful of your lifestyle--and knowing that lasting change is not accomplished without knowledge and a little work.  You will find that SparkPeople is a great resource to help you accomplish not only your weight-loss goals but also your heart-health goals! (Visit SparkPeople's Healthy Heart Condition Center today.)

In the not too distant past, heart disease was erroneously labeled as a "man’s" disease.  The seemingly healthy father that suddenly dies of a heart attack leaving young children and a wife behind is a stereotypical nightmare scenario.  Views like this have placed too much emphasis on men in heart-health research, and, as a result, both treatment guidelines and public health initiatives are skewed toward men. 

But are you aware of the prevalence of heart disease in women?   More than 42 million women are currently living with some form of cardiovascular disease.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in America!

To change America’s perception that heart disease is a "man’s disease," the American Heart Association in 2004 created the campaign Go Red for Women  to bring awareness to this largely preventative disease.  Efforts such as Go Red for Women Day work because studies show that when women are aware of their risk for heart disease they are much more likely to make the effort to make the necessary lifestyle changes. 

The same simple, lasting changes you're implementing as a way to lose weight will also help you keep your heart healthy: eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, don't smoke (or quit if you do), and limit your alcohol intake.

So, as women, what can we do specifically to improve our heart health? What should we be doing to keep our ticker ticking?

What Women Need to Know at Every Age

We're never too young to start taking care of our hearts. As we grow older, age-specific guidelines and recommendations exist (and I've listed them below), but there is plenty that women of every age need to know to assess our risk for heart disease and keep our risk of developing the disease as low as possible. 

Numbers you need to know and target values: 
To learn many of the numbers listed below, you'll need to visit your health-care provider.
  1. Blood pressure: less than 120/80
  2. Total cholesterol: less than 200
  3. LDL "bad cholesterol": less than 100 (some may need it less than 70)
  4. HDL "good cholesterol": greater than 50
  5. Triglycerides: less than 150
  6. Glucose (HbA1c): less than 7%
  7. Body mass index (BMI) 18.5-24.9
  8. Waist circumference: less than 35 inches
Exercise recommendations: The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (about 20 minutes a day--and divided into two 10-minute sessions is fine) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.  For weight loss and weight maintenance, you may require up to an hour of exercise on most days of the week. 

Stop smoking.  This is absolutely non-negotiable.  Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the United States.  Please get help if you are unable to do so on your own. 

Eat a heart-healthy diet, as presented by the AHA: 
  1. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole-grain and high-fiber foods.
  2. Eat fish at least twice a week, preferably oily fish, or talk to your provider about taking omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) supplements.  (Pregnant women should avoid fish with high mercury levels.)
  3. Do your best to eat less salt.  Limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day.
  4. Avoid trans-fatty acids.  No trans fats is the goal.
  5. Eat very little saturated fat (such as fat from meat, cheese, and butter); less than 7 percent of your calories a day
  6. Drink no more than one alcoholic drink a day.  No alcohol is best!

Healthier Hearts in Every Decade

In your 20s:  Thinking about preventing heart disease is usually not on the radar of a woman in her 20s.  But should you be concerned about your heart as a 20 year old?  Absolutely! Heart disease can begin in childhood.  Now is the time to learn how to eat a healthy diet and to establish a consistent exercise routine.  Smoking must be stopped and certainly not started at this age.  Obtaining or maintaining a healthy weight is a must as well. It is also important to learn about your family history so that your physician can be on the lookout for hereditary early-onset disease.  Getting a physical and knowing your numbers is important for keeping your future risk low. 

In your 30s:  Many women at this age have families and are putting themselves last on the list.  Excess stress, poor diet and lack of exercise can become a concern.  Eating a healthy diet and exercising consistently is crucial at this age.  If you have not yet started your healthy lifestyle plan, it’s not too late! Again, smoking must be stopped and is non-negotiable.  Continue to get regular checkups so that you can know your numbers and keep your risk of heart disease low.    

In your 40s:  Women who may have put off living a healthy lifestyle may start to develop high blood pressure and diabetes. If left unchecked, that gradual creep of weight gain can land you in the overweight or obese category.  If you have yet to start getting your annual checkups, it is not too late.  Know your numbers and reduce your risk factors.  Lose weight if your BMI is too high.  Stop smoking now if you have been unable to quit.   

In your 50s:  The number of women having heart attacks dramatically rises after age 55.  Women who have kept their numbers in check and remained consistent with their healthy diet and exercise by age 50 may never develop heart disease.  Consistency in diet and exercise need to be maintained.  Smoking must be stopped.  Exercise limitations may become more prevalent as arthritic diseases become more common and modifications may need to be made.  Regular checkups with your primary-care physician continue to be important as even more women are diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. 

In your 60s and beyond:  It’s healthy diet and exercise again! It’s also never too late to benefit from smoking cessation.  You might need to modify your workouts, but it is still important to aim to reach your weekly exercise goals. 
The bottom line:
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women. More than 200,000 women die each year from heart attacks alone, which is 5 times greater than deaths from breast cancer. Lifestyle modifications can greatly reduce and in many cases prevent heart disease. 

As I mentioned, efforts such as Go Red for Women work because just making women aware that they have unhealthy risk factors leads them to take preventative action. So, now that you know a little more about what you can do to prevent heart disease, go see your primary-care physician and get to know your numbers.   The earlier you start the better, but it is never too late to benefit from living a heart healthy lifestyle!

Keep Sparking everyone!

Are you keeping your heart healthy? What steps have you taken to improve your health?

Did you know?

SparkPeople has a Free Heart Health Program

Join our special heart health program to get:
  • Personalized meal plans that meet American Heart Association guidelines for sodium, fat, cholesterol and other key nutrients
  • Easy-to-use trackers for blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and more
  • A weekly Healthy Heart newsletter plus more tips and articles
  • Community support from others working to improve their heart health
Join now!

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.


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Hi, Thanks for the sharing a good post with us. I totally agreed with the suggestions you gave us to take care of heart diseases. I know ..how to prevent heart disease and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.I believe on regular exercise & eat to vegan & fiber diet to keep healty for heart diseases. I really appriciate your nice post. Please keep sharing with us. Thanks Report
Great Blog!! good info.....Keep trying as I had a sister that had a heart attack at a young age....Thanks for the positive info...!!!!

When I was young and very thin, I never thought about eating habits or exercise. I wish I would have had the internet then to read all this stuff. I would be in a lot better shape and at a lot less weight than I let myself get in to by doing nothing all those years Report
I love how people assume because I am under weight and young that I have no reason to be concerned about these things. My Grandmother who is a tiny thing herself has such blood pressure issues and cholestral. I told people I want to start on good habbits now so it won't be so hard when I am older.

I hear the "Girl you are too skinny to be worrying about that. Eat big fat greesy cheese burger and some fries and you will gain some pounds. When I tell them that isn't a good way to gain weight they laugh and snear at me as I eat my carrots with natural peanut butter. How said that people think just because you are young and thin you don't need to worry about heart diese. Report
It is so important to know these numbers. Why could I not save it to my favourites? Report
Very informative. Report
Very informative regarding where numbers should be and what to ask your doctor at your next appointment. I also like how it get those at in their early 20's aware and what to look for to prevent heart disease and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Report
Very informative and I'm taking notes on those numbers for my next doctor's appointment! Report
Great information. I had no idea heart attacks were 5x then breast cancer. Major eye opening info in here. Thanks so much. Report
I didn't feel so good after trying to keep up with the 20 year olds in zumba class. I'll be hitting 60 next month. Dr sent me for tests and there it was .. an unhealthy heart beset with a blockage and a slow valve. Apparently, I was told, there is a strong hereditary factor here, as both mother and grandmother died young. Last year I lost 30 pounds and reduced my ldl counts significantly, but it wasn't enough, because the disease is already there. Anyways ... it's fixable. The ldl has dropped drastically with drugs, but it isn't going to be fun and I'll be on more drugs for the rest of my life. So ya... if you are a woman and you are young ... keep heart healthy and check your geans every once in awhile. For the rest of us; if it's not about keeping up in Zumba class ... then we only need to find another measuring stick. ;) Happy Dancing. Report
My sister's cardiologist has her doing very low carb. He says cutting out sugar and flour would decrease heart attacks drastically. Report
I read all the articles on walking and test guidelines, etc.....
True probably cholesterol is a problem but they are finding what is more important is inflammation. And that sugar and things that turn to sugar are the WORST for inflammation.... whites, all of them and, of course, bad fats. (:o) but white coconut oil is a good fat)
I eat "meat" at least once a day and often twice a day, and by cutting out sugar and all wheat carbs, rice, pasta etc.... I dropped my cholesterol 100 points... I love my veggies, but I love my meat, too! and meat isn't the culprit! Neither are eggs! Report
I'm FINALLY getting it. I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, but, other than total cholesterol and blood pressure being ok, #'s 3-8 up above pertain to me. I'm a walking time bomb. Fortunately, the threat of diabetes kicked me in the butt. I have been strenghth training and exercising and eating healthy for about 6 weeks now, with very few slip-ups. I've decided I want to be around to see my children get married, and hopefully someday, see my grandchildren. I'm only 51, but not too young for a heart attack.

Thanks for the article. It motivated me to keep going!! Report
Five and half years ago, I had an aortic dissection (aneurysm) fixed and a heart valve replaced. This was the result of the genetic condition I found out I had in my early 20's. I wasn't being too smart about my health before the surgery, but since then I've become vigilant about my health issues. I think that it is very cool that February is heart health month because this is also my birth month. Each birthday that I've had since my surgery is extra special to me because I know that it is truly a miracle that I'm here to celebrate my birthday. Report
I agree with the suggestion that we take care of our hearts, but I would suggest that we go even further. I am a believer in a plant strong diet....vegan diet. If you have a family history of heart issues, or diabetes, you will want to read Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn's book...."Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease". He is a scholar on the subject, and makes a very strong presentation. Report
For an alternate view of how to prevent and control heart disease, check out Dr William Davis' Track Your Plaque and Wheat Belly blogs. Also www.mercola.com has loads of information about cutting-edge info around heart disease and the real role of cholesterol. Report
And in the words (lyrics, actually) of Miss Peggy Lee, "You gotta have heart."

It's all starting to make sense now.

Even Sonny and Cher used to sing, "The Beat Goes On." Report
My sister called me today to tell me that her husband had a heart attack yesterday. They are going to do a double bypass tomorrow. She is really scared and very upset. I really don't know what to tell her because this is the first time I've really had to deal with this. I know that it all must be so sad. I don't know how I would react if my husband had a heart attack. I know I would probably fall apart. Sad times:( Report
I had a heart attack at age 55 (9+ years ago), but I haven't had any symptoms since then. I've been following a heart healthy diet (lots of fruits and veggies, lean protein, low sodium) and lost 15% of my body weight. Last fall my PCP cut my heart meds in half and eliminated one all together. Life is good! Report
Doctor had reduce my blood pressure medicine due to my weight lost , now I have gain weight back , my medicaiton dosage has change and I find myself back to being tried ans sluggish.. Report
My blood pressure was up before I started the SP program. I need to go get it checked again! PTL that I am making real changes to affect these health issues. Report
Sorry when i think of heart issues, the statistic will always be physician error caused the death of my husband at 51. Article from sci am in 2009 on "Deaths from avoidable medical error more than double in past decade, investigation shows." from the article. "Preventable medical mistakes and infections are responsible for about 200,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to an investigation by the Hearst media corporation. " while much less than the 2200 , 548 per day is a substantial number and for me one in 2002 was more than enough Report
I´m finally taking SparkPeople.com seriously becaues my cholesterol is high. I´ve been readfing much about vegetarianism since the cholesterol is virtually nonexistant in their diet, and although am not totally a veggie, most days my cholesterol intake is less than 150. Heart disease can still take its toll with 300mgs or less of cho per day. Report
My paternal grandfather had his first (known) heart attack and triple bypass surgery when my mom was pregnant with me, so I grew up in a household that was very conscious of heart health. We never ate butter or full fat anything (dairy, meat, etc), we ate lots of vegetables and fruits, my dad ran almost every day and my mom went regularly to a fitness club. I consider myself lucky, despite the heart disease that runs in my family, to have grown up in such a healthy household, because it set a healthy foundation for me that I've benefited from my whole life.
That's not to say that I didn't have some years in college and my early twenties where I veered off the healthy track for a while... that's why I'm here on SP! But now I truly understand how important it is to exercise and eat right not solely to lose weight and have a nice figure, but more importantly to make sure your heart and body are in good shape. You've only got one heart - treat it well! Report
I wish more women would take better care of themselves and their hearts. Many don't realize that more women die from heart disease. One thing I wish this article covered was the warning signs of heart disease in women. The symptoms for women are different than men. Which is why many women en up ignoring the signals. They think it's something else.

I try to take care of myself because I have seen too many family members die from preventable diseases. Too many people don't take time for themselves. They think it's something they can put off to another day. Well, you can't put off your health. If you want to live a long productive life, you do have to take care of yourself. So, yes, I exercise regularly. I get some strength training. I try to eat right, not perfectly, but as best as I can. And I try to get a physical at least every couple of years. I don't want to end up as another statistic. I'd like to beat the odds.

These are some very scary statistics, all women need to be aware and improve their health in the areas where they fall short. Being active and following the SP principles is a good start to help all of us in our healthy lifestyle, while preventing factors that can lead to bad health problems. I agree, please stop smoking if you do, I only did for a few years in h.s., thank goodness I stopped after 2 years. Report
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