Heart disease is the nation's leading killer of women. But paying attention to risk factors and living a healthy lifestyle can help keep heart disease at bay.
"It's an equal opportunity killer," said Dr. Jennifer Mieres, a professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York. "Women in mid-life are definitely at the highest risk. It's a volatile time for women, as the menopause transition is marked by changes in body composition, fat distribution and an increase in cholesterol levels."
Among women, 90% have one or more risk factors for heart disease at some point in their lives, according to American Heart Association statistics. Yet 80% of cardiovascular diseases are preventable.
Get annual checkups
It's important to get annual checkups to assess heart-health risk and take action, Mieres said. Don't let fear of COVID-19 keep you away from annual visits.
Prepare for the appointment, much as you would when gathering documents to meet with a financial adviser.
"You go to your accountant at tax time, and you don't show up empty-handed," she said. Be prepared to discuss any family history of heart disease or other concerns. "You should not be passive. You should have a conversation."
Become knowledgeable of your key health numbers, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. For example, blood pressure of less than 120/80 is considered normal.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack
Women's heart attack symptoms may cover a wider spectrum compared with symptoms in men. Women may experience the "classic" heart attack symptoms of chest pressure, chest discomfort or shortness of breath, just as men do.
"But women also may have symptoms such as back pain, usually on the left side; shoulder pain; a fullness in the stomach; or nausea as signs of an impending heart attack," cautioned Mieres. She is an executive producer of the documentary Ms. Diagnosed, which focuses on inequities in women's cardiovascular disease care.
Tell your doctor if you had a pregnancy complication
Recent research has focused on heart disease linked to pregnancy-related complications. Diabetes and hypertension during pregnancy as well as early delivery have been linked to increased cardiovascular disease risk years later.
"Pregnancy is a stress test" for the body, a possible marker for heart disease later in life, said Mieres.
Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep – getting less than six or seven hours a night – is connected to heart disease, research has shown. Poor sleep has been linked to high blood pressure, can make it difficult to lose weight and may make you less likely to want to exercise.
Chronic stress is another area of concern for women. It can lead to behaviors and factors that impact heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, inactivity and overeating.
To cope with stress, eat healthy foods, exercise and get plenty of sleep. Consider talking to others about your stress, including a friend, parent, doctor or counselor.
Find a health partner
In all heart-healthy efforts, it helps to have a partner in the endeavor, Mieres said.
Work with a health care professional to find a customized treatment plan that fits your daily life and medical needs. A friend, family member or co-worker also can be a good partner for getting physically active and sticking with a healthy eating plan.
"It's OK if you fall off the wagon. You have that person to help you get back on track," said Mieres. "There is strength in numbers."