Heart Health Essentials
Women are at equal risk as men: Diet and exercise vitally important
Heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” but that is far from the truth. In the United States, around the same number of women die from heart disease each year as men do. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in our country, with total heart disease-related deaths averaging about one every minute.
While the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, women are more likely to experience other symptoms as well. These symptoms may not be as obvious and include shortness of breath, cold sweats, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, back or jaw pain, and feeling abnormally tired. Some of these symptoms may not typically raise red flags, which could explain why 64% of women who died suddenly from heart disease had no previous symptoms.
Preventing heart disease starts with knowing what risk factors cause it. Smoking, high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and diabetes are major risk factors. Family history can make you more susceptible to heart disease, but managing other risk factors can significantly reduce your chances. Regular heart health screenings are encouraged, as they help you stay aware of your risk factors. Talk to your doctor if you would like more information about heart health screenings.
Most risk factors for heart disease can be managed with lifestyle changes. If you smoke, work toward quitting. This is no easy task, but there are programs and even medications to help. Ask your doctor about your options and what may be suitable for you. If your blood pressure or LDL cholesterol levels run high, aim to get them under control. Diet, exercise and taking medications as prescribed can help. Weight loss may also help lower LDL cholesterol. If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar levels and managing all other risk factors can lower your heart disease risk.
Diet can help protect your heart from disease. Aim to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, incorporating at least one serving at every meal and snack. Choose whole grains instead of refined grains, and aim for lean protein and dairy choices. When reading a nutrition label, choose foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber and lower in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. If you drink alcohol, consume in moderation, meaning no more than one drink per day (12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor) for women. If you would like more information about heart-healthy eating, the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH Diet, the TLC Diet, and the MIND Diet are all great choices. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new diet.
Physical activity, as mentioned earlier, also reduces your risk for heart disease. It improves your blood circulation, boosts energy, reduces stress, improves blood pressure and cholesterol, and can help you sleep better. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, or 30 minutes daily Monday- Friday. Be sure to include both aerobic exercise (aka “cardio”) and musclestrengthening exercises. You don’t need to be a star athlete to reap the benefits of exercise – any activity that you enjoy and that gets your heart rate up will strengthen your heart. If you’re just starting to get active, don’t fret if you cannot reach 150 minutes every week yet. Start at a rate that is manageable for you and gradually work your way up to 150 minutes. Any movement is better than none! If you have a chronic disease or disability, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.
Studies show that women are not as likely to call 911 when they experience heart attack symptoms. Many women simply don’t consider themselves “atrisk.” Heart disease affects everyone, even those who don’t fit the bill. Protect your heart by staying aware of risk factors, visiting your doctor regularly, and adopting a healthy lifestyle.
Abigail McAlister is an asssistant extension agent (general nutrition) for the LSU AgCenter. Her main focus is adult nutrition education and promotion in Caddo and Bossier parishes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.