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How to Stay Heart-Healthy After Menopause

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 12/14/2016
Last Updated: 12/14/2016

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All women need to be aware of the things we can do to stay heart-healthy—especially around menopause, when we lose the protective effects of estrogen.

Estrogen is thought to have a positive effect on the inner layer of the artery wall, helping to maintain flexibility in the blood vessels, so they can remain relaxed and dilated, allowing for blood to flow easily. Additionally, declining estrogen raises harmful low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, while lowering beneficial high-density lipoprotein levels.

Yes, the risk of heart disease goes up for everyone with aging, but for women, it increases markedly after menopause, with heart attacks increasing about 10 years post-menopause. And because heart disease is the leading killer of women, it's important to strive for a healthy heart.

Good nutrition filled with fruits, veggies, lean fish and poultry, nuts and whole grains are a step in that direction. So is staying at a healthy weight. Excess weight not only makes it difficult to button your jeans, but it can put a strain on your heart and make controlling your blood pressure a challenge.

But there's more than just good nutrition, a healthy weight and exercise that factors into a healthy heart: New research shows that midlife women with a history of depression are at a much greater risk of heart disease.

"Once we added depression … with the other well-known risk factors for coronary artery disease, depression was the only one to stand out in women under 65," said Dr. Xuezhi Jiang, the author of the study.

While it remains somewhat elusive to scientists as to exactly why depression is linked to heart disease, they do know that it can increase the production of stress hormones in the body. Stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, can make your heart rate speed up and raise your blood pressure.

Many experts suggest women may want to consider getting screened for depression. If you are depressed, you would do your heart a big favor to have your depression treated, either by instituting some coping mechanisms of your own or by consulting a health care professional (or both!).

Here are some good coping mechanisms to try:

Don't be so hard on yourself. Inner thoughts can be destructive, not constructive. That "critical inner voice" takes away your power. Practice self-compassion. Ask yourself if you're angry. Sometimes anger can be tough to accept, and instead of expressing it, we suppress it, turning it inward, which can lead to depression.

Be active. I'm a big proponent of movement—walking, cycling, exercising. It all counts to help release the mood-elevating endorphins we have. It's a big depression fighter! And the benefits of getting out into the fresh air and sunshine can't be overestimated.

Don't be a shut-in. (See above.) Also, socializing and being around other people— especially happy people—helps lift your mood. Even if you don't know the people around you, it feels good to be out and about rather than sitting alone and feeling sorry for yourself.

Set goals. Depression may make you feel like you can't put one foot in front of the other and can make you feel as if you're walking through quicksand. But if you set goals—especially for things you enjoy doing—you will be much more likely to do whatever you're not doing now!

There are plenty more heart-health depression fighters, like listening to music, being spontaneous, reading a good book, watching a comedy or feel-good movie and playing with your pet. Perhaps you'd like to share a few of your own below.

And, remember, if you feel like you might be depressed, don't delay talking with your health care professional. There are screening criteria they will use to determine if you suffer from any form of depression. Then treatments can begin that may include self care, talk therapy, medication or a combination.

You might also be interested in reading:
Do More Hot Flashes Mean Mood Woes During Menopause?
Menopause and Anxiety: What's The Connection?
Is Menopause Playing Havoc With Your Sleep?
Screening for Depression During and After Pregnancy