Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States. More than 300,000 women die from heart disease each year, compared to about 40,000 deaths from breast cancer. A number of factors can increase your risk of heart disease. Most of these risk factors can be prevented.
Your heart and blood vessels (the cardiovascular system) carry oxygen-rich blood to the cells in your body (without oxygen, the cells will die). Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood through your body. There are two different types of blood vessels arteries and veins. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the body. Veins carry blood back from the body to the heart.
Plaque forms when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries.
Coronary Artery Disease
The vessels that supply blood to the heart are called coronary arteries. The most common cause of heart disease is coronary artery disease, a narrowing of blood vessels to the heart by the buildup of plaque, a fatty substance that forms in the arteries when too much cholesterol is present.
Cholesterol serves as a building block for cells and hormones. Most of the cholesterol in your body is made by the liver. Some comes from such foods as meat and dairy products. There are several types of cholesterol. The two main types are:
- HDL (high-density lipo-protein) helps prevent heart disease. This good cholesterol helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries. It moves from the blood vessels to the liver, where it is broken down to be passed from the body.
- LDL (low-density lipo-protein) tends to stay in the body and build up on artery walls. This bad cholesterol causes plaque to form in the arteries and makes it harder for blood to flow through them.
Over time, bad cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, a narrowing, clogging or hardening of the arteries by a buildup of plaque deposited in vessel walls. Atherosclerosis can begin when a person is young, but it can take decades for signs of heart disease to appear.
When the blood vessels narrow, the supply of blood and, therefore, oxygen to the heart may be reduced. This can cause chest pain (angina) and can lead to a heart attack. Chest pain can be a sign that the heart isn’t getting enough oxygen, but not everyone with atherosclerosis has this symptom.
Who is at Risk?
Certain factors increase a person’s risk of heart disease. Some of these risk factors, such as age, cannot be changed. Other factors, such as one’s cholesterol levels, can be changed.
A woman’s risk of heart disease is higher if she:
- Is age 55 or older
- Has a family history of heart disease or heart attack
- Has a high total cholesterol or high LDL level
- Has high blood pressure
- Smokes cigarettes
- Does not exercise regularly
- Is obese
- Has diabetes
The risk of heart disease grows as the risk factors increase.
Keeping Your Heart Healthy
What You Can Do
You can make lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy. Changing your diet to reduce fat and cholesterol intake, quitting smoking and exercising daily can lower your risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack. If lifestyle changes alone are not enough, your doctor may suggest medications to help decrease your cholesterol or blood pressure. To reduce your risks, follow these guidelines:
Lower Your Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the blood vessels. When arteries are narrowed by plaque, blood pressure increases. Untreated high blood pressure (hypertension) can lead to heart disease. Your blood pressure can be checked at your doctor’s office with an inflatable cuff.
A blood pressure reading includes two numbers. The systolic blood pressure (the top or first number) is the force of blood in the arteries when your heart contracts. The diastolic blood pressure (the bottom or second number) is the force of blood in the arteries when your heart relaxes. A blood pressure reading of less than 120/80 is best. A reading of 140/90 or more is considered high and needs attention.
Exercise, weight control and not smoking can help reduce your blood pressure. If these steps do not keep your blood pressure in the normal range, medication may be needed.
Watch Your Cholesterol
High levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) in the blood increase your risk of heart disease. High blood cholesterol has no symptoms, but your doctor can test your cholesterol levels. If you are age 45 or older, have your cholesterol checked every 5 years. If you have risk factors for heart disease, your doctor may conduct this test earlier or more often.
If your total cholesterol level (total of LDL and HDL) is high, you can take steps to decrease it. For instance, you can reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Saturated fats include animal fat and some vegetable fats, such as butter, lard, palm oil and partially hydrogenated oils. Cheese, whole milk and red meat can also be high in saturated fat.
Eating more fiber, such as oats, beans, fruit and vegetables can help reduce your total cholesterol level. Exercise, weight control and not smoking can help, too. If these diet and lifestyle changes don’t lower your cholesterol enough, your doctor might suggest medication.
Smoking is a major cause of heart disease among women. A woman’s risk of heart disease increases the more and the longer she smokes. Women age 35 and older who smoke and use birth control pills have an even greater risk of heart attack. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about how to quit. The sooner you quit, the lower your chance of developing heart disease.
Stay Physically Active
Lack of physical activity can increase your risk of heart disease. Routine exercise helps control high blood pressure and weight. It also helps improve cholesterol levels by increasing HDL cholesterol and decreasing LDL cholesterol levels. Try to be physically active for at least 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week.
Control Your Weight
Obesity increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. A woman is obese if she is more than 30 percent above her ideal weight. Use our body mass index (BMI) calculator to check if your weight is healthy.
The BMI compares a person’s height to their weight to see if they are overweight. Having a BMI of 20 to 24 is normal, and 25 to 29.9 is overweight. A woman with a score of 30 or higher is obese.
The shape of your body is also a factor in keeping a healthy weight. Women with fat around the abdomen (apple-shaped) are at higher risk for heart disease than are women who have extra weight around the hips and thighs (pear-shaped).
Keep Your Heart Healthy After Menopause
The rate of heart disease increases with age and after menopause. Some postmenopausal women have used hormone therapy.