When it comes to matters of the heart, the outlook for American women is rather grim. We’re talking about heart disease, not romance. The top threat to women’s health, heart disease claims the lives of one in three American women every year, with 90 percent of women having at least one risk factor for developing heart problems. To complicate matters, doctors are just beginning to uncover female-specific risk factors that have often been overlooked. As women, we’re often the caretakers of our families, and as a result, our own health can take a backseat. The good news is that no matter what your age, you can start making lifestyle modifications today to keep your heart healthy.
Your 20s: Set a Healthy Foundation
Heart disease now affects more young people than ever before, thanks to the cultural epidemics of obesity and diabetes. But your 20s are a perfect time to start honing in on heart-protective habits, according to Emily Ruben, MD, a cardiologist at Ascension St. Vincent’s Women’s Cardiac Risk Clinic. “Creating habits early will only help you down the road,” she says.
- Learn to Cook: A plant-based diet that incorporates whole foods, lean proteins and lots of veggies is a hallmark of heart health, Ruben says. By cooking for yourself, you gain control of what goes into your meals, including more organic ingredients and less salt and sugar.
- Find Exercises You Love: Use your freedom in this stage of life to explore different modes of exercise to get in the recommended 150 minutes a week. Join a flag-football team, drop in on a hot yoga class, or explore Indy’s many bike paths. “The best kind of exercise is one that you enjoy and makes you come back to do more,” Ruden says.
- Know Your Family History: If you don’t already know your parents’ and siblings’ heart history, now is the time to find out.
Your 30s: Tune In
Emerging research shows that women in their child-bearing years have unique risk factors for cardiovascular disease, so if you haven’t already taken steps to developing a heart-healthy lifestyle, get in gear.
- Monitor Your Pregnancy: Gestational hypertension, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia during pregnancy increase your risk of heart disease later in life, so you may need regular blood-pressure monitoring or the intervention of a cardiologist if you develop these conditions, Ruden says. Plus, you’ll want to work with your doctor after pregnancy to manage resulting risk factors.
- Relieve Your Stress: While the trials of motherhood make it tempting to reach for a glass of wine or binge on Netflix, this is the perfect time to pick up healthy stress-management practices, like meditation or journaling.
- Exercise with Your Kids: Busy moms may need to adapt their exercise regime during these years, and that’s OK. “I’d encourage women with young children to let children see you exercise,” Ruden recommends. Take them on a hike at the local metropark or have a dance party in the living room — but don’t feel bad about stealing away for a short high-intensity workout if you need some alone time.
Your 40s: Be Proactive
As women transition to menopause, heart-protective estrogen begins to drop in the body, leaving you at higher risk for heart disease. It’s important to be mindful in these health shifts as you move into your 40s, when early menopause can occur.
- Start Annual Checkups: If you don’t already have annual well-visits with your doctor, start getting in the habit. Regular checks of your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and body mass index will help identify risk factors and allow you to take necessary preventive measures.
- Watch Your Weight: Keeping weight to a heart-healthy level (less than 35 inches around the waist) can become more difficult after menopause, and maintaining a healthy diet and moving regularly throughout the day can help.
- Avoid Estrogen Products: Synthetic estrogen used to help manage women’s transition to menopause can actually increase risk of heart attack and stroke. Keep use of these products to a minimum or avoid them altogether, says Ruben.
Your 50s: Stay Aware
As you age, it’s more important than ever to stay on top of your health. By knowing your own body and what symptoms of heart attack and stroke look like in women, you can get the help you need if faced with a real problem.
- Actively Manage Chronic Conditions: Keep on top of management practices recommended by your doctor for diabetes or high blood pressure to reduce the risk of heart problems.
- Report Unusual Symptoms: Some women don’t recognize that they are having a heart attack because the symptoms often look different than what men experience. Visit the American Heart Association (www.heart.org) to learn more, and talk to your doctor anytime you notice something unusual in your body.
Whatever your stage of life, it’s never too late to begin the journey toward a healthier lifestyle. You’ll reap the rewards no matter when you start, and your families will, too.