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The estrogen advantage

Granted, it’s not always easy being a woman. A complex reproductive system and delicate hormonal fluctuations make the female sex vulnerable to certain conditions. Still, being female has at least one major health benefit—estrogen. The hormone keeps cholesterol levels in check, thereby deterring the number one killer of women, heart disease.

Unfortunately, the benefit is not permanent. As estrogen production wanes after menopause, a woman’s heart attack risk begins to rise. Understanding the relationship between estrogen and cholesterol will help you protect your heart—no matter your stage of life.

What happens?

Before menopause, estrogen boosts levels of heart-healthy HDL cholesterol while keeping levels of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol in check. This means women in their childbearing years are at low risk for developing heart disease. But after menopause, when estrogen levels fall, HDL levels drop and LDL levels rise. The upshot? By age 65, a woman’s risk for heart disease equals that of a man. What’s worse, women have smaller blood vessels, making them more susceptible to blockage.

What you can do

Certain lifestyle changes can help keep cholesterol levels healthy.

  • Think healthful fat. Remember, saturated fat (the type found in butter, cream, cheese, palm and coconut oil) has a greater negative effect on your blood cholesterol than dietary cholesterol (found in all animal products) does. Try to keep your saturated fat intake to no more than 7 percent of your daily calorie intake. Read labels on packaged foods to check for saturated fat content.
  • Get active. Physical activity raises HDL levels. Anything from gardening to walking to bowling can help your heart. Try to accumulate at least 30 minutes of activity on most days of the week. Talk to your doctor before you start any type of activity program.