Women: How to have a Healthy Heart

Heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the United States. And an estimated 8 million women have it. What's more, a new study shows that in recent years the overall heart disease risk for Americans-especially women-hasn't continued the healthy downward trend it showed in previous decades.

Here are some practical ways to prevent heart disease. Start with these age-specific steps.

During your 30's

Do not eat any foods that contain trans fat.
Commonly used to extend the shelf life of packaged foods like cookies and crackers, and also found in margarine, they can raise bad cholesterol (LDL), while lowering good, protective HDL (your LDL should be below 100; your HDL, above 60).

In a Harvard University study, women with the highest level of trans fats in their blood had triple the risk of heart disease, Take a cue from major U.S. cities like NewYork and Philadelphia (which have banned trans fats from restaurants), and pitch them out of your pantry.

On ingredient lists, they show up as "hydrogenated" and "partially hydrogenated" oils. But scrutinize any product touted as "trans fat-free" at the supermarket, too: Some manufacturers have replaced hydrogenated oils with tropical oils that are high in saturated fat, which also raises LDL cholesterol. Eating out in a city where trans fats aren't banned? Skip the fried stuff-many restaurants still use the oils for frying.

Seek advice from your OB/Gyn.
During your prime reproductive years, you may visit your OB-GYN more than you go to your regular doctor. Make sure you talk to him/her about your heart as well as gynecological health, particularly because blood pressure (BP) can rise if you're taking birth control pills or when you're pregnant.

Women who develop pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-related hypertension) are prone to heart disease later in life. Sharonne Hayes, MD, director of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota says, "How your heart handles pregnancy offers a snapshot of how it will look in middle age." To keep blood pressure from creeping up (the safe zone is lower than 120 over 80), substitute herbs and spices for salt-try cumin for a healthy twist on popcorn, for instance. Too much salt causes blood vessels to retain water, which can lead to high BR

Losing your temper can damage your arteries, according to research by C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Women's Heart Center and endowed chair in Women's Health at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.

"Raging causes your blood pressure to surge and stay up there", Dr. Merz says. That's why it's crucial to get a grip on anger at an early age, before it takes a toll. Learn now that instead of venting when a situation makes you furious, you can take a few deep breaths and describe to yourself what's making you angry. That should help you calm down.

During your 40's.

Sleep is very important.
When your hormones are fluctuating, it can be tough to fall asleep. More than half of women in their 40s suffer from insomnia at least a few nights a week. When your body is deprived of restorative sleep, your heart has to work harder.

Studies show that too little sleep may lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes. How little is too little? A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that less than seven-and-a-half hours per night puts you at risk for heart disease. Another recent research from Duke University found that women who take more than a half-hour to fall asleep or those who awaken frequently during the night have inflammation in their arteries and higher levels of insulin, two major risk factors for heart disease.

So, do your best to unwind with a relaxing bedtime routine. Listen to soothing music or soaking in a tub with bath salts. And, despite how difficult it might sound, try to exclude technology and work from your the bedroom- your bed should be for sleep and sex only.

Monitor your mood.
Peri-menopausal women have nearly double the risk for depression, and that spells trouble for their hearts, says Jennifer Mieres, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor at New York University School of Medicine.

Uncontrolled stress can raise blood pressure and flood blood vessels with inflammatory chemicals, which in high doses can be toxic to the heart, while depression has been linked to hardening of the arteries.

Then there are the unhealthy habits that come with stress and the blues: smoking, excessive drinking, and overeating.

Good suggestion for your mood and your heart?
Exercise. - 30 minutes of aerobic activity (walking, biking, swimming) most days of the week has been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression by about half, an effect comparable to antidepressant use, while lowering blood pressure and strengthening your cardiovascular system.

Did you know?

The American Heart Association has identified several risk factors for heart disease:
- High cholesterol or high blood pressure
- Being overweight
- Smoking
- Lack of exercise
- A family history of the disease

none of the above apply to you. Keep up the healthy habits!

one or more of the above applies to you.
Make lifestyle changes to lower your risk.

you've had a heart attack, stroke, or heart surgery; or if you have diabetes.
Get regular checkups, and call your doctor immediately if you experience chest, jaw, or back pain, or shortness of breath.

Source: Health.com
Jan 2009
Julia Sommerfeld