We’ve all heard that heart disease is the number one killer of women, but what does that mean for a fresh college grad in her 20s, a new mom in her 30s or a 40s-something professional at the top of her game? Quite a lot, it turns out.
No matter what your age, experts stress that it’s never too early to start taking steps to keep your heart healthy. In fact, studies have shown that if you can avoid the conditions that put you at risk for heart disease before you turn 50, you have a better chance of avoiding heart troubles altogether.
“We often think of heart disease as an older woman’s disease, but that’s just not true,” stresses Mary McGowan, CEO of the nonprofit WomenHeart, The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, which was founded by three women who had heart attacks in their 40s. “It’s important for younger women to be aware of the risk factors for heart disease, to know the signs and symptoms and to have conversations with their doctor about ways to keep their hearts healthy.”
No matter what stage of life you’re in, there are things you can do to keep your heart in good shape now and in the future. Here’s a decade-by-decade breakdown.
Women in their 20s are thinking about a lot of things – college, marriage, work, motherhood. The risk of heart disease probably doesn’t make the list. Putting a few positive behaviors in place now, however, can pay off later.
Ditch bad habits
Now’s the time to quit smoking for good. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by two to four times, according to the American Heart Association. Hang out with friends who smoke? According to a U.S. Surgeon General report, even nonsmokers are up to 30 percent more likely to develop heart disease or lung cancer from secondhand smoke exposure.
Know your family history
Do heart issues run in your family? If your father or brother had a heart attack before the age of 55, or if your mother or sister had one before the age of 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself, according to the National Institutes of Health. Make sure to tell your doctor or OB/GYN about your family history so he or she can keep a close eye on your numbers.
Focus on your health
Your 20s are a time to explore, try new things and enjoy being young, and you can do that while setting up healthy habits that will last for decades. Find a sport or exercise routine that you love and make it a regular part of your life. Discover your favorite ways to cook healthy foods so you’ll actually eat them. Indulge in a hobby that helps you destress, like reading, yoga or hiking.
“I hear women say, ‘I’m going on a diet.’ No, don’t go on a diet. Eat healthy all of your life.
Or, ‘I’ll exercise for the next 10 months.’ No, put it in your lifestyle and make it just part of your routine,” says cardiologist Dr. Elisabeth von der Lohe, Program Director of the Women’s Heart Program at Indiana University Health. “If it’s a habit, you’re more likely to stick with it.”
Your 30s are a time of juggling. Between raising kids, moving forward in your career and juggling other multiple commitments, there’s often little time left to worry about yourself. Still, this is a crucial time to keep your health a priority.
Notice pregnancy changes
Pregnancy is often the first major cardiovascular stress test for women, so take note of how your body responds. If you develop hypertension or gestational diabetes, don’t assume they’re gone for good once the baby’s born.
“Women are often told that these conditions are due to your pregnancy, and that after you give birth, it will revert back. But the research shows that women who experience these heart-related issues during pregnancy are 80 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease in the future,” McGowan says.
If you have hypertension or diabetes while pregnant, make it a point to follow up with your doctor or OB/GYN so they can keep tabs on your heart health. While new motherhood can be overwhelming, it’s a good time to maintain the healthy habits you adopted during pregnancy or to slowly start improving your diet and exercise routines now that you have a baby depending on you.
Listen to your body
Think being tired, gaining weight and forever fighting a bad mood are just part of life in your 30s? Think again. Now is the time to stop rationalizing away those little things and actually bring them up to your doctor.
“Women have a tendency to put themselves last. They think they always have to be available for their family and their children, so they let their weight slide or they don’t exercise,” von der Lohe says. “But, in the end, you don’t help anyone if you’re not healthy. It’s not selfish to be healthy.”
Tame your stress
Your 30s can be a stressful time, but it’s in your heart’s best interest to find positive ways to cope. According to the American Heart Association, long-term stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure which can damage the walls of your arteries. Seek out stress management techniques to practice, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or simply finding time to do things you enjoy.
As women age, we lose some of our natural defenses against heart disease. Hormonal changes from menopause can affect cholesterol levels, and type 2 diabetes usually develops after the age of 45 for women, reports the American Heart Association. But don’t despair. Your 40s are a time when you can still make important changes to keep your heart healthy longer.
Start regular checkups
If you’ve mainly been seeing an OB/GYN or don’t have a primary care doctor, now is the time to establish a relationship with someone who can make your heart health a top priority.
The American Heart Association recommends you have your cholesterol checked every five years, your blood pressure checked at least every two years and your blood glucose levels checked every three years starting by the time you’re 45. Your body mass index and waist circumference should be checked during every regular visit.
Find physical activities you enjoy
If you haven’t already made staying active a part of your daily life, starting now can seem like a chore, but it really is critical. According to the American Heart Association, exercising for 40 minutes, three to four times per week can improve your blood pressure and HDL “good” cholesterol, reduce your chances of developing diabetes and strengthen your heart.
There are a wealth of resources online to help you keep your heart health top of mind throughout your life. Track and analyze your heart numbers with Go Red for Women (www.goredforwomen.org/know-your-numbers/) and find resources on how to make specific lifestyle changes on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s page (www.nhlbi.nih.gov). Do it for yourself – and for everyone who cares about you.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Your Heart Health
- What is my overall risk for heart disease?
- What lifestyle changes can I start making to improve my heart health?
- How much exercise do I need to help protect my heart?
- What tests should I have to monitor my risk factors for developing heart disease or other cardiovascular diseases? How often do I need these screenings?
- I’ve heard the warning signs of a heart attack can be different in women. What should I look for?