Cardiovascular disease claimed the lives of 460,000 women in the U.S. in 2004, making it the leading cause of death, according to the American Heart Association.
Every minute that goes by, another female dies from cardiovascular disease, which encompasses coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, heart failure, peripheral arterial disease and cardiac arrhythmias.
That’s why all women – even those who do not have a family history of those diseases – should be screened regularly by a doctor.
Although genes do ultimately play a large role in whether one develops the disease, the American Heart Association says there are steps a female can take to reduce her risk of developing cardiovascular disease:
— Say no – to cigarettes. If you are a smoker, quit now. This nasty habit triples your risk of dying by boosting blood pressure and making blood more prone to clot, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Within a year of quitting, you will decrease your risk of a heart attack by 50 percent.
— Watch your waist. Balance the calories you take in with the calories burned by physical activity. Keep an eye on your middle area. If you have a big belly, you are more likely to have fat in and around your abdominal organs where it can be released into the bloodstream as dangerous fatty acids that contribute to clogged arteries. For women, a waist size more than 30 inches is a red flag. (Note: For some ethnic groups, such as Asians and South Asians, the risk for cardiovascular disease increases with an even smaller waist size.)
— Get physical. Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Exercise – in any form - will lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and boost your “good” cholesterol.
— Use pepper, not salt. Keep your blood pressure at 120/80 mmHg or below. To attain this goal, slash sodium from your diet; as women age they become more salt-sensitive (especially African-American women), which contributes to elevated pressure. Women over the age of 50 should cut sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day. If you already have high blood pressure (140/90 mmHg), take all your medications as prescribed.
— Cut back - on saturated and trans-fats. These fats can be found in packaged foods such as cookies and potato chips. They can also contribute to high cholesterol, which causes fatty plaques that can clog arteries or rupture and form clots that can block arteries, causing heart attack. Keep total cholesterol below 200 mg/dl.
— Eat colorful foods. Fruits and vegetables such as spinach, carrots, peaches and berries are high in antioxidants and fiber.
— Go fishing – at least twice a week. Eat tuna, salmon and trout which are rich in omega-3 fats (the good kind). If you want to eat red meat, choose a lean cut.
— Get inspi-red. Antioxidant substances in red wine have proven to help protect the heart. Limit your wine intake to one drink per day to avoid increasing your blood pressure and triglycerides.
— Use your watch. The true female advantage when it comes to cardiovascular disease is time. Because of the protective effects of naturally-occurring estrogen, women typically develop cardiovascular disease 10 years later than men. Take advantage of those extra years to change the risk factors that can be controlled.
Rita Baron-Faust is a certified health education specialist.