If you thought you didn’t have to worry about heart disease because you’re a woman, think again. It’s true that before menopause women are somewhat protected from heart disease, thanks to estrogen. But once menopause arrives and estrogen production declines, a woman’s risk slowly rises.
Even more troubling, women don’t fare as well as the opposite sex after a heart attack or after a coronary procedure, such as bypass surgery or angioplasty. Their advanced age is one likely reason; procedures and medications designed largely with men in mind, another. Result: Heart disease is the number-one killer of women, claiming about 218,000 lives a year.
That said, women simply can’t afford to ignore their risk of heart disease or wait until they’re diagnosed to deal with it. So take this quiz from the American Heart Association to find out what the outlook is for your heart—and what you can do to make it brighter.
Check all boxes that apply to you.
- Your age may increase your risk if…
- You are a woman over 55 years old, or you have passed menopause or had your ovaries removed.
- Your family history may increase your risk if…
- Your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55 or if your mother or sister had a heart attack before age 65.
- Cigarette and tobacco smoke increases your risk if…
- You smoke or live or work with people who smoke every day.
- Your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol levels may increase your risk if…
- Your total cholesterol level is 240 mg/dL or higher.
- Your HDL (“good”) cholesterol level is less than 40 mg/dL.
- You don’t know your total cholesterol or HDL levels.
- Your blood pressure may increase your risk if …
- Your blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or higher, or you have been told that your blood pressure is too high.
- You don’t know what your blood pressure is.
- Physical inactivity may increase your risk if…
- You get less than a total of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week.
- Excess body weight may increase your risk if …
- You are 20 pounds or more overweight.
- Diabetes increases your risk if …
- You have diabetes or take medicine to control your blood sugar.
- Your medical history may increase your risk if …
- You have coronary artery disease, or you have had a heart attack.
- You have an abnormal heartbeat.
If you checked two or more boxes, see your healthcare provider for a complete assessment of your risks. He or she will help you identify areas that need attention. In the meantime, read on for ways to start reducing, controlling or preventing as many risk factors as you can.
1. Stop smoking. Cigarette smoking causes blood vessels to narrow, which impairs circulation and makes it easier for plaque to stick to artery walls. And if you already have heart disease, smoking will only make it worse.
2. Watch your weight. Even in the absence of other risk factors, simply carrying extra pounds is enough to jeopardize your heart health. That’s because high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol are all linked to obesity. The good news: A weight loss of just 10 to 20 pounds is enough to improve your outlook even if you’re very overweight.
3. Control cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) are a stronger risk factor for women than men. What’s more, current research suggests high triglyceride levels play a significant role in the development of heart disease in women. The only way to know if your cholesterol and triglyceride levels are undesirable is to get tested.
4. Take high blood pressure seriously. Experts now believe that even borderline high blood pressure (between 120/80 mm HG and 139/89 mm Hg) is cause for concern. Have your blood pressure checked at least every two years, and if you have elevated blood pressure, take steps to control it: Increase your physical activity, reduce stress levels, drink alcohol in moderation if at all, lose excess weight and take any medication exactly as prescribed.
5. Watch for diabetes. Diabetic women have a greater risk of heart disease and heart attack than nondiabetic women.