Age is one of the risk factors we have no control over. You see, heart disease doesn’t play favorites. You can be young, energetic, and athletic and still be diagnosed with it.
Regan Judd was all of those things, but that didn’t stop her from needing open heart surgery at 19 years old. “I kept thinking of my grandpa because he had open heart surgery when I was a kid,” she says. “But he was so much older than me that I just couldn’t grasp it.”
Certainly adds a whole new perspective to being “a kid at heart,” doesn’t it? Arguably, it’s a much-needed new perspective. One that should serve as a wake-up call for women of all ages to understand the importance of, first knowing they can have risk factors at any age, and then managing those risk factors before they become a problem.
So how exactly can you manage your risks and keep heart disease out of your life? We’ll break it down by age.
In your 20s
- Know early the numbers that impact your heart health. This will make it easier to spot a possible change in the future. Your goal should be less than 200 mg of total cholesterol intake daily, and strive for a blood pressure reading of 120/80 mm Hg or less.
- Check your family history. Ask your family if anyone has had heart disease or any of the risk factors for heart disease. If the answer is yes, your chances for developing heart disease go up. It’s important to learn this information now so you can be aware of your risk. Make a point to talk with your doctor and see what you can do to decrease your risk of developing heart disease.
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. If you picked up smoking as a teen, it’s time to quit. Even exposure to secondhand smoke poses a serious health hazard. To make matters worse, according to a U.S. Surgeon General report, nonsmokers are up to 30 percent more likely to develop heart disease or lung cancer from secondhand smoke exposure.
- Drink in moderation. Drinking heavily can cause a spike in your blood pressure, and in some cases cause heart failure and lead to a stroke. Keep in mind that for women, moderate drinking is no more than one drink per day, which is defined as:
- 1-1/2 fluid ounces (fl oz) of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, scotch, vodka, gin, etc.)
- 1 fl oz of 100-proof spirits
- 4 fl oz of wine
- 12 fl oz of beer
- Choose birth control carefully. Talk to your doctor about your options so you can make a fully informed decision based on the risks and benefits. Oral contraceptives along with other birth control options can cause an increase in your blood pressure. If you can safely use an alternative method that doesn’t put your health at risk, consider the advantages. Remember that cigarette smoking and oral birth control use can increase the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.
In your 30s
- Tame your stress. Long-term stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls. Pick up a few stress management techniques to soothe your mind and body. Try deep breathing exercises and find time each day to do something you enjoy – whatever it takes to knock out stress.
- ‘Me time’ isn’t optional – it’s a requirement. Juggling a family and career has probably left you with little time to worry about yourself. Life is a balancing act, but your health should always come first. Now is the time to build heart-healthy habits. That means eating healthy, getting lots of physical activity and a full night’s sleep. Studies have shown that if you can avoid the conditions that put you at risk for heart disease until you turn 50, chances are good that you may never develop it. Make your health a priority.
- Choose birth control carefully. Talk to your doctor about your options so that you can make a fully informed decision based on the risks and benefits. Many types of contraceptives, but especially oral contraceptives, can cause an increase in your blood pressure. If you can safely use an alternative method that doesn’t put your health at risk, consider the advantages. Remember that cigarette smoking and oral birth control use can increase the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.
In your 40s
- Strive for more balance and less stress. Women are naturally caretakers. Ask any mom, spouse, businesswoman or caretaker; chances are, they rarely put their own needs first. But what would happen if you were suddenly too sick to take care of your family or go to work? The bottom line is prevention. You have to make time and invest in your own health — for yourself and the people who depend on you. Try yoga, take up gardening, get a weekly massage or mani-pedi, pick up a new hobby or an old one that love but stopped doing years ago. Whatever it is, do something that can make the stress melt away.
- Make your wellbeing a priority. By 40, some women have already made physical activity part of their daily life, but if you haven’t, it can seem like a chore. Between family and work, it may be difficult to make time for yourself, but it is critical for your health. Regular physical activity (150 minutes moderate intensity or 75 minutes vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity each week) can improve your blood pressure and HDL “good” cholesterol, reduce your chances of developing diabetes, and strengthen your heart.
- Get regular checkups. In addition to blood pressure checkups and other heart-health screenings, you should have your blood sugar level tested by the time you’re 45. This first test serves as a baseline for future tests, which you should have every three years. Here are the tests you should have:
- Weight and Body Mass Index
- Waist Circumference
- Blood Pressure
- Heart Exam
- Fasting Blood Glucose
In your 50s
- Monitor changes in your body and keep an open dialogue with your doctor. As women age, we lose some of our body’s natural defenses against heart disease. This can happen because of changes in hormones from menopause, which can affect your cholesterol levels. Also, type 2 diabetes usually develops in women after age 45. So take time to get regular checkups. Play an active role in your healthcare and work with your doctor to see if you have any heart disease risk factors. If you are already at risk, ask your doctor how you can reduce it.
- Know your numbers. Knowing the numbers that impact your heart is an important step toward healthy living. Here’s a quick overview of the numbers you need to know and your goals. Be sure to talk to your doctor to see how your current numbers measure up.
- Total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL
- HDL (good) cholesterol 50 mg/dL or higher
- LDL (bad) cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL
- Triglycerides 150 mg/dL
- Blood pressure less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Body Mass Index less than 25 kg/m2
- Waist circumference less than 35 in.
- Watch what you eat. If you have extra room in your schedule, take the time to carefully plan healthy meals for you and your family. Choose foods low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars. Focus on including foods that are nutrient-dense like colorful veggies and fruits, fiber-rich, whole-grains, lean meats, skinless chicken and fish rich in omega-3s, and fat-free, 1 percent fat and low-fat dairy. These foods can give your heart the nutrients it needs as well as improve your cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Get physical. If you haven’t been exercising, now is the time to start. Pick something that you enjoy and start slowly. Chances are, if you enjoy the type of exercise you engage in, the more likely it is that you’ll stick with it. If you’ve been exercising for a while, change up your routine every now and then so you won’t get bored. Your goal is to exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes most days, if not all days of the week.
In your 60s and beyond
- Know your risk. The more risk factors you can keep under control, the less likely you are to have a future heart attack. But as you get older, your blood pressure, cholesterol and other heart-related numbers tend to rise. And unfortunately, studies show that the number of women who have heart attacks increases dramatically, especially after menopause. But the good news is that you have the power to reduce your risk, and if you do have a heart condition, there is plenty you can do to manage it. A great place to start is by taking the Go Red Heart CheckUp. It only takes a few minutes and along with your results, you’ll receive a Personal Action Plan. Think of it as a customized guide to help you achieve your fitness and nutrition goals, and live heart smart.
- Keep moving. The older we get, the trickier exercise can be. But it’s still very important to make physical activity a top priority in your life. If exercise is new to you, start slow and talk to your doctor for suggestions on the types of exercise or workouts that you can explore. If working out has never been your thing, that’s okay; walking, even short brisk walks for as little as 10 minutes throughout the day, can provide enough physical activity to keep your heart in shape. Your goal should be to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.