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Guard Your Heart: Why Younger Women Should Take Steps NOW to Prevent Heart Disease

Guard Your Heart: Why Younger Women Should Take Steps NOW to Prevent Heart Disease

Written by Jonathan Bailor, CEO SANESolution & Reviewed by Dr. Matthew Olesiak, MD Chief Medical Director, SANESolution

Since the early 1900s, the leading cause of death in the U.S. has been heart disease. Once thought to afflict only men, heart disease — or to be specific, cardiovascular disease (CVD) — is now the number 1 cause of death for women in the U.S. as well.

According to the American Heart Association, “more than one in three female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease,”(1) and the CDC reports that “about one in 16 women age 20 and older have coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease.”(2)

These alarming statistics make clear that you’re never too young to take steps to reduce your risk of heart disease.

Before we discuss risk factors and how to reduce them, we need to define cardiovascular disease.

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to any condition that is heart-related. This can include blood clots, arterial blockages, valve disease, stroke, hypertension (high blood pressure) and stroke. It involves both the heart and the blood vessels.

Heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease that affects the heart’s structure and function. It is a blanket term for several different cardiac conditions like coronary artery disease (clogged arteries) and heart failure.

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease, and it’s usually the one people mean when they refer to heart disease.

In this article, we are using the general term “heart disease” to refer to any matters that affect heart function.

Heart Disease Risk Factors for Women

There are several risk factors for developing heart disease. Although most risk factors are the same for both sexes, many of them put women more at risk of this disease than men.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure (HBP) or hypertension is a condition in which the force of blood pushing against the artery walls is consistently too high. Over time, this can scar and damage the arteries, forcing the heart to work harder.

Many women develop high blood pressure during pregnancy, even if they’ve never had a problem with blood pressure. Using birth control pills can also raise blood pressure. In addition, a woman’s risk of developing high blood pressure increases significantly after menopause. This may be caused by shifting hormonal levels that occur during this stage of life.

A recent study published in JAMA Cardiology, found that starting as early as their 20s, women exhibit a steeper increase in blood pressure measures than men. This suggests that high blood pressure, a major risk factor for high disease, “not only develops earlier but also progresses faster in women than in men”.(3)

 

High Cholesterol

High cholesterol is a condition characterized by excessive cholesterol accumulation in the body. If left untreated, high cholesterol can lead to a buildup of fatty deposits in your blood vessels that can eventually restrict blood flow to your heart. These deposits can also suddenly break, forming a blood clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

Research shows that women’s cholesterol levels vary with changes in estrogen levels.(4) A huge drop in estrogen levels may be one of the reasons why post-menopausal women have been shown to have higher cholesterol levels than premenopausal women,(5) which increases their risk for heart disease.

Menopause

Menopause, that natural phase in a woman’s cycle when menstruation permanently ceases, has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The American Heart Association reports that “an overall increase in heart attacks among women is seen about 10 years after menopause.”(6)

The decline in estrogen levels is thought to play a role in women’s increased risk of heart disease after menopause. This is because this hormone is thought to help protect the inner lining of the arterial wall.

And menopause may affect you earlier than you might think… 

Research shows that 1% of women reach menopause at the age of 40 or younger. And although menopause typically arrives between the ages of 45 and 55, perimenopause can begin up to 10 years earlier.  

Diabetes

Though diabetes is a major heart disease risk factor for both sexes, it increases the risk in women more than it does for men. Experts believe this could be because women with diabetes often have additional risk factors, such as obesity and hypertension.(7)

Smoking

It’s no secret that smoking significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke for both sexes. However, the risk is higher in females compared to males, especially women under 50! (8) Women smokers over the age of 35 also have a greater chance of dying from heart disease than men who smoke.(9)

Other Risk Factors

Additional heart disease risk factors include:

  • Family history of heart disease or stroke
  • Obesity
  • Poor-quality diet (heavily processed foods, sugar, saturated fat, starchy carbs)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Age (In general, the risk increases as you get older)
  • Excessive alcohol use

 

Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women

As previously mentioned, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women. However, women are more likely to die from a heart attack than men.

Part of the reason for this is that many people still consider heart disease to affect mostly men. But another reason may be that women’s heart disease symptoms are often different from men’s.

Though chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, many women do not experience chest pain. Rather, they often notice a tightness or pressure in their chest.

Women are also more likely than men to have symptoms that are not related to chest pain.  These symptoms include:(10)

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heartburn
  • Sweating
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Pain or heaviness in one or both arms.
  • Dizziness
  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, or upper back discomfort

 

How to Help Prevent Heart Disease

Given that women are developing cardiovascular diseases at a younger age, it is crucial that you take steps now to minimize these risks.

Here are a few steps you can take that may help prevent heart disease.

Don’t Smoke

Statistics show that people who smoke have triple the risk of heart disease than those who don’t smoke.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 toxic chemicals. When inhaled, these chemicals contaminate your blood stream and can damage blood vessels and heart.(11)

If you currently smoke, it’s not too late to quit. Research shows that your heart disease risk starts to drop one day after quitting, and a year after quitting, your risk drops to about 50% of that of a smoker’s. (12)

Even if you don’t smoke, you should avoid breathing second-hand smoke, as this can also damage blood vessels and heart.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Good nutrition is essential for your health and wellbeing. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “adults who eat a healthy diet live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.”(13)

Sadly, most Americans are not eating a healthy diet but are instead getting most of their calories from heavily processed foods.(14) These foods have been stripped of their fiber and filled with toxic chemicals and sugar.

To help prevent heart disease, experts recommend that your eating plan includes:

  • Plenty of non-starchy vegetables
  • Lean meats and fish
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Healthy fats, i.e. olive oil

In addition, you should reduce your consumption of heavily processed foods, sugars, salt, saturated and trans fats, and alcohol.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer.

If you’d like to manage your weight, the food recommendations listed above can help you do so. These foods not only help you maintain a healthy weight, but they’ll also help you feel great!

Get More Exercise

Getting regular exercise is a great way to protect your heart, mostly because it can lower your risk for conditions that often lead to heart disease.

For instance, regular physical activity can help regulate blood sugar levels, thus reducing your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Research shows that as little as 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, improve blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, manage your weight, and so much more.

Get Regular Health Screenings

Most of the conditions that increase your risk of heart disease have no symptoms, especially in their early stages. If you don’t know you have these conditions, they can silently destroy cardiovascular health.

Thus, it is extremely important that you see your primary care physician for a yearly wellness examination. In addition, you should have regular health screenings for type 2 diabetes, cholesterol, and blood pressure. 

The Lifestyle Changes are Worth it!

Though some of these lifestyle changes can be challenging to make in the beginning, you can do it. Just remember to gradually make these changes, and before you know it, you’ll be happier and healthier!

And you’re SO worth it!

References

1- American Heart Association. Women & Cardiovascular Diseases. Statistical Fact Sheet 2016 Update. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_483971.pdf

2- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women and Heart Disease. CDC. Page last reviewed: Jan 31, 2020. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm

3- Ji H, Kim A, Ebinger JE, et al. Sex Differences in Blood Pressure Trajectories Over the Life Course. JAMA Cardiol. 2020;5(3):255–262. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2019.5306

4- National Institutes of Health. Women’s Cholesterol Levels Vary with Phase of Menstrual Cycle. NIH. Aug 10, 2010. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/newsroom/releases/081010-womens-cholesterol-levels

5- Medical Xpress. Cholesterol levels increase in post-menopausal women. Australian National University. Sep 18, 2019. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-09-cholesterol-post-menopausal-women.html

6- American Heart Association. Menopause and Heart Disease. American Heart Association editorial staff. Last Reviewed: Jul 31, 2015. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/menopause-and-heart-disease

7- Harvard Health Publishing. Gender Matters: Heart Disease Risk in Women. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/gender-matters-heart-disease-risk-in-women

8- American College of Cardiology. Young Women Who Smoke Face Highest Risk of Major Heart Attack. Jun 24, 2019. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2019/06/24/12/48/young-women-who-smoke-face-highest-risk-of-major-heart-attack

9- Smokefreegov. Smoking’s Impact on Women’s Health. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://women.smokefree.gov/quit-smoking-women/what-women-should-know/smokings-impact-on-women

10- Mayo Clinic Staff. Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors

Print. Mayo Clinic. Oct 4, 2019. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167

11- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. How Smoking Affects Heart Health. May 4, 2020. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-effects-tobacco-use/how-smoking-affects-heart-health

12- Mayo Clinic Staff. Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors

Print. Mayo Clinic. Oct 4, 2019. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167

13- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poor Nutrition. CDC. Jan 11, 2021. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/nutrition.htm#:~:text=%20The%20Harmful%20Effects%20of%20Poor%20Nutrition%20,at%20increased%20risk%20of%20type%202…%20More%20

14- Consumer Reports. More troubling signs that ultra-processed foods can hurt your health. Aug 19, 2019. Accessed Aug 11, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-effects-tobacco-use/how-smoking-affects-heart-health