How to Be a Heart-Healthy Woman

Get informed and better your odds against heart disease.

Red hearts hanging on a string

Chronic stress, too little sleep, diabetes and obesity are common risk factors of heart disease among women.

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Ladies, listen: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. So let's hear it, what have you been doing to lower your risk? Do you even know your risk? If not, it's about time to get empowered. Learn about heart disease and how to prevent it, and share the word with your sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunties, cousins and friends. Follow the advice below from Jennifer Mieres, professor of cardiology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in Long Island, N.Y., and spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women movement. 

Learn the risk factors and symptoms.
Are you at risk for heart disease? A shrug is not an answer. Ninety percent – 90 percent! – of women have at least one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, so you better learn what they are. A family history of heart problems is a major risk factor, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity are also culprits. Black and Latina women are at high risk due to the high prevalence of these factors.

And while heart disease is an “equal opportunity killer,” of  which men and women are equally vulnerable, “There are certain risk factors that are more potent and much more deadly in women than they are in men," Mieres says. Chronic stress, too little sleep, diabetes, obesity, inactivity and diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are particularly strong risk factors among women. Additionally, women with polycystic ovary syndrome, and those who faced pregnancy-related complications or hit menopause before age 50 are more at risk.

[Read: Menopause: Finding Relief to its Symptoms.]

Symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks are a little different for women, too. Sure, many women will experience what’s considered to be the classic symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain and pressure and shortness of breath. But sometimes women will present with less classic symptoms such as upper back pain, nausea, jaw pain and unusual fatigue – each of which may indicate heart disease or a heart attack.

Believe it or not, listing this mountain of risk factors and not-so-obvious symptoms isn’t meant to scare you, but rather to prompt a heart-healthier lifestyle. The great news is that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable. “Once you identify your risk early and make simple lifestyle changes, you definitely can prolong your life and prevent heart disease or control heart disease if you already have it," Mieres says.

Rethink your health care. “I am a big believer that as women, we need to look at our health care as a partnership,” Mieres says – not a “passive relationship” with your doctor. Be proactive. No waiting until you feel sick before seeing your doctor, and no nodding with eyes glazed to whatever he or she tells you.

First things first: Schedule annual examinations with your health care provider. Before your appointment, and as an ongoing habit, write down observations about your health – symptoms, questions, concerns – and discuss these topics with your doctor.

[Read: “5 Tips for a Smooth Doctor's Visit.]

Remember, you’re taking an active role in the relationship with your health care provider, so if he or she doesn’t bring up the topic of heart health, you should broach the subject. To Mieres, that means reviewing your blood pressure and cholesterol, and “having a discussion of, ‘OK, what’s my heart disease risk based on my family history and based on my own individual risk factors?’” From there, she adds, you and your provider should talk about what simple steps you can start taking now to improve your heart health.

Better your odds. There’s no shortage of ways to improve your heart health, but here’s where Mieres would start: “If you could do only one thing, choose to move every single day. Choose to be active.” She wants to dispel the notion that daily exercise must take the form of grueling gym sessions. It’s up to you how you work in 30 minutes of brisk activity, which means you can do it all at once or in 10 minute increments. And best of all, your daily fitness can be whatever you choose, so you may even have fun. “Whether it’s walking, jogging, swimming, biking – that will be one small step on the journey to heart health,” Mieres says. Speaking of steps, Mieres suggests tracking the steps you walk as a simple start to moving more. She points out that you can do that with a $100 Fitbit activity tracker or a $10 pedometer.

[Read: 2014 Fitness Trends: What's In, What's Out.]

Other ways to treat your ticker? “Put down the salt shaker,” Mieres says, and “include more fruits and vegetables in your diet.”  Regularly getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night and chronic stress also up the risk of heart disease, particularly for women, so try (really, truly try) to relax. And, of course, stop smoking now, and steer clear of secondhand smoke.

Make heart health a community effort. Find a friend or family member, and hold each other accountable for being active, eating healthfully and staying far, far away from tobacco. “You’ll fall off the wagon every once in a while,” Mieres say. “But if you have a partner or friend that’s joining you in this personal challenge, in three or six months or in a year when you look back, you’re more likely to see you’ve made small gains on the journey to heart-healthy living.”