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The female heart: Start protecting yours now!

When you’re in the throes of building a career and raising a family, thinking beyond health issues like pregnancy and vitamin supplements can be difficult. If asked to name your greatest health risk, breast cancer may come to mind before heart disease. After all, until menopause, women enjoy the heart-protective effect of estrogen. But heart disease remains the number one killer of women, claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined. And the stage for your heart disease risk may already be set—even while you’re still young. Clogged arteries, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and poor blood sugar control can begin as early as your teens and go undetected for years.

Heart disease, though, is largely preventable—a healthy lifestyle can lower risk by as much as 82 percent. That’s why you shouldn’t wait until menopause to try to undo half a lifetime of smoking, inactivity or unhealthy eating. Act now to protect your heart with these tried-and-true steps:

  1. Learn your family history. If your dad or brother had a heart attack before age 55 or your mom had one before 65, you’re more likely to develop heart disease. Does hypertension, high cholesterol or diabetes run in your family? If so, your risk rises. Use this knowledge to motivate you toward healthier ways.
  2. Know your numbers. Learn your blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference, fasting glucose, triglycerides and cholesterol levels, including total, LDL and HDL cholesterol. If you need to adjust any numbers, don’t wait to get them under control. Start taking care of any conditions that need improvement today to ensure a healthier tomorrow.
  3. Quit smoking. More than 70 percent of women ages 45 and younger who have heart disease are smokers. Two years after quitting, your heart disease risk will be cut by one third.
  4. Get to and maintain a healthy weight. Too many pounds increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and more. Extra weight around your middle—a waist circumference of 35 inches or more—is especially problematic for your heart.
  5. Eat heart-happy meals. Choose foods low in sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol and avoid trans fats. Eat a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables daily. Skip excess sugar and, if you drink alcohol, limit consumption to just one drink a day. Choose foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, nuts, seeds and soy.
  6. Get moving. Your heart is a muscle, which means you must work to strengthen it. You need at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity like brisk walking, bike riding or cross-country skiing on most (preferably all) days of the week.
  7. Learn to relax. Mental stress affects women’s hearts more than men’s. Incorporate de-stressing measures into your daily life. Learn a relaxation technique such as breathing exercises or imagery or try a meditative exercise like yoga or tai chi.