It kills more of us than breast cancer yet if we go to the Emergency Room doctors may not treat us appropriately.   If you thought we were discussing heart disease in women, you’d be correct.

One in 4 women will die from heart disease, or if you survive, it may permanently damage your heart and your ability to function normally.

Do You Know What Heart Disease Is?

Heart disease happens when the heart, which beats more than 3.5 billion times during an average lifetime, doesn’t get enough blood. The blood, which supplies nutrients to the heart, is needed, because during a typical day, your heart, on average will beat around 100,000 times and needs to pump approximately 2,000 gallons of blood through your body. If the heart doesn’t get enough blood, it can’t get the nutrients (or gas) that it needs to do it’s job.

Young nurse with heart in her handHeart disease may be chronic- which means it often doesn’t just happen. Problems with your heart may develop over a number of years. Atherosclerosis occurs when the arteries which carry the blood away from your heart, harden when materials like fat, cholesterol, or others accumulate in the surfaces of the arteries.  Visualize what would happen if you put gel or gunk into a straw. The actual space available for fluid to flow through it becomes narrow. This limits the amount of fluid, or circulation in your body if we’re comparing this to the heart, and blockages, when they are serious enough, can cause a heart attack.

The bad news about all this is that there’s no “quick fix” for heart disease. There’s not any one procedure, or surgery, or medication you can take that will wave a magic wand and take this away. If not addressed however, heart disease often leads to disability or quite possibly death. So there’s no excuse for burying our heads under the covers regarding heart disease. It’s your life we’re talking about and you have family and friends who love you. There are steps you can take, starting today, to either prevent heart disease if you don’t have it yet, or control it.

Lifestyle changes and sometimes medication are used in conjunction to help minimize the effects of heart disease and/or to stop it from progressing as rapidly.

What Group of Women Need to Be Most Concerned About Heart Disease?

If you’re between the ages of 40 and 60 your risk increases.  The reason for this increase in heart disease risk for women during this stage of life is that your estrogen level declines as you go through menopause. Additional risk factors include things like having high blood pressure, diabetes, a family history of heart disease (especially if someone in your family developed heart disease early in life), high cholesterol, smoking, being overweight or obese and being over the age of 55. All these things can increase your risk of having heart disease so it’s important to identify your risks, take stock of them, and then decide what you can do about the ones within your control.  The important thing to understand about these risk factors, is that your risk may significantly increase if you have multiple risk factors.

First Steps for Women: What You Can Do Now About Heart Disease:

Talk to your doctor about heart disease. Have regular blood tests and get copies of your own lab results so that you can see not only if your laboratory values are ‘normal’ but are they optimal for your health? Getting  a copy of your lab work also allows you to see and monitor your progress if you are working for example, on lowering your cholesterol, or getting your blood sugar levels under control.
Take notes or ask your doctor if you can record the conversation so that you can come up with a plan of action that you can implement to improve your health and address your risk factors.
Get the “ok” from your doctor to start an exercise program if you’ve been sedentary, and ask for help to stop smoking if you’re a smoker.

Heart Healthy Tests (You can Do or Request Some of these From Your Doctor)

Blood pressure
Cholesterol Levels (Ask for the complete Lipid Panel)
Fasting Blood Glucose Test  (blood sugar)
Also Ask for an H1A1C test if you’ve had any previous blood sugar issues because unlike the regular blood glucose test which only tests your blood sugar at one particular point in time, the H1A1C test will be able to tell you how your blood sugar levels have been over a three month period. It is still a one time test that can be done at the same time as your other blood work, but it is just a different test that your doctor will need to order.
Electrocardiogram or EKG
Stress Test
Measuring the size of your waist and knowing your BMI

When you are having blood work done it is important to make sure you are fasting for 12 hours prior to having your labs drawn. If you are diabetic or have any other medical conditions, make sure you consult with your doctor before fasting. Some medications may need to be taken with a small amount of food so for those special circumstances, also consult with your doctor first before fasting.

But have the conversation with your doctor about how to properly prepare for a laboratory test. Which for most people will include fasting for a 12 hours prior to having their blood drawn. You may drink water, but no coffee, milk, or other beverages or gums, mints, etc. should be eaten or consumed prior to your lab work.

Why Women Don’t Take Action About Their Own Heart Disease:

Women are caregivers, typically putting everyone else’s needs before their own. Sometimes you may neglect your own health or make assumptions that you’re not “Old enough” to have heart disease, or that you have too much going on in your life to make any necessary changes.   You may be under a lot of stress in your life and/or may just be very tired and not think that it’s important enough to do something sooner rather than later for your own health.

Steps You Can Take Today To Lower Your Heart Disease Risk:

Exercise: As long as your doctor has cleared you to exercise, and you understand the amount and type of exercise that it’s safe for you to do, then get moving! This can address and help so many risk factors for heart disease. Exercise helps on a variety of levels, starting with reducing your stress, raising endorphins, helping lower blood sugar, helps to maintain or reduce your weight, is important for muscle tone and circulation, and keeps your heart healthy. Remember, your heart is a muscle, and muscles atrophy if they are not used. So get off the couch and stay active. Your heart, and your family will thank you for it!    Most recommendations say that at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise should be done each day or almost every day.

Watch your diet: Limit things like sugar, and salt.  Sodium can raise your blood pressure and cause more stress on your heart, so keeping sodium to no more than 1500 mg a day is usually recommended. Check with your doctor to see if you need to lower your sodium intake even further.  Watch your fats:  saturated fats should be limited, as well as trans fats, and cholesterols.  Some fat is needed, but make sure that you’re getting proper portions of heart healthy fats like foods high in omega 3 fatty acids: (salmon, herring, sardines, trout) or flaxseed, walnuts or canola oil.  If you drink alcohol limit your consumption to no more than one drink per day.

Watch your weight: even small reductions in weight can help significantly reduce your heart disease risk. Those 10 pounds really do matter!

Take Prescribed Medications and Follow Your Doctor’s Advice: If you are prescribed heart medications make sure and follow your doctor’s instructions for how and when to take them. If your doctor has instructed you to include other interventions into your plan, keep in touch with your physician on a regular basis and follow their recommendations for improving your heart health.

In our next article, we’ll discuss the warning signs that may signal heart trouble, and how women’s bodies are different when it comes to symptoms of  a heart attack.   If you’re a women, or love one, make sure that you make it a priority today to learn about heart disease and how it affects women in other ways than men.