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February is American Heart Month, so I thought I would remind you to take care of your heart. This is especially important for women our age.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease and stroke kill 1 in 3 women—more than all cancers combined. The good news is that 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes.
Go Red for Women
For more than a decade Go Red for Women, the AHA's national movement to end heart disease and stroke among women, has fought for equal health opportunity for women. The campaign encourages women to wear red during February, share stories of survival and advocate for more research and swifter action for women's heart and brain health.
It focuses on changing the culture to make it easier for women and their families to live healthier lives.
Einstein Health Network MD Shares Tips for a Healthy Heart
This year, to learn more about women and heart disease, I reached out to the experts at Penn Medicine Heart & Vascular Center. Nazanin Moghbeli, MD, MPH, cardiologist at Einstein Health Network in Philadelphia, provided an excellent overview for post-50 women, and I'm pleased to pass it on.
Dr. Nazanin Moghbeli
It is no secret that heart disease risk factors increase as you age. When a woman reaches menopause, her body goes through a number of changes, and research shows that heart attack and heart disease risk spike during and after this time. A decline in estrogen is thought to be a major factor for why women have a greater risk of developing heart disease once they are postmenopausal.
It's not that menopause directly causes heart disease, says Dr. Moghbeli. Menopause causes "several things to change in a woman's physiology, and some of those changes can lead to heart disease," she explains. "The lipid profile of women actually starts to change, so that cholesterol starts to go up. And higher cholesterol can put you at higher risk for heart disease," she says. "That happens pretty immediately after menopause."
At the same time, blood pressure also begins to rise. "The blood pressure is not directly related to menopause. It's kind of related to the aging process," Dr. Moghbeli says. "But those two factors—the blood pressure and the cholesterol rising—can increase the risk of heart disease."
How do you reduce heart disease risk in the time surrounding menopause?
During menopause and post-menopause, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing a heart condition, including:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet: This is especially true for women in menopause because they're at higher risk for developing heart disease. Stick to a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables and low in sugar and sodium. (I eat my blueberries every day and try to get five servings of veggies a day, too. How about you?)
- Staying active: Aerobic exercise is a key part of heart health. Dr. Moghbeli recommends that women get around 45 to 50 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. "That can be fast walking. It can be bicycling," Dr. Moghbeli says. "It can be anything that really gets your heart rate up." Aerobic exercise can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. (Ooh, ooh, ooh, this can be challenging. My doctor told me I need to do more cardio workouts. I go on my recumbent bicycle for 30 minutes each morning, but need to get back to the elliptical at the gym. Need to get my heart rate pumping! How about you?)
- Knowing your numbers: Blood pressure and cholesterol are numbers that are important to know. Women should start heart screenings at age 20 to develop a baseline for these numbers. It is important to be screened regularly, and it is never too late to start. (Blood pressure under control: √. Unfortunately, I have high cholesterol and am allergic to statins. My doctor said that my HDL, or happy cholesterol, and triglycerides are good, so it balances out my high LDL. I exercise, watch what I eat most of the time and get my blood work at least once a year: √. What about you?)
- Reducing stress: "Stress can really impact your cardiovascular well-being," Dr. Moghbeli notes. "Sometimes women are running their households, taking care of their parents, working, taking care of kids—and the stress level can really be quite high," she explains. This can worsen things like high blood pressure and overall cardiovascular stress. Finding ways to relieve any stress you might feel—whether by doing yoga or reading or whatever relaxes you—can improve your overall cardiovascular health, Dr. Moghbeli says. (As a yoga instructor, I'm a BIG proponent of yoga and meditation. My yoga practice has definitely helped me de-stress since I retired from my full-time corporate career. What about you? What do you do to lower your stress level?)
- Limiting hormone replacement therapy: Hormone replacement therapy can relieve some symptoms that occur with menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. The medications give a woman's body adequate levels of estrogen and other hormones. But studies about hormone replacement therapy have found that it can also increase a woman's chances of having a stroke or heart attack. "We don't recommend that women take it for prevention of heart disease," Dr. Moghbeli explains. It might, however, still be reasonable to use it as a short-term method to treat menopause symptoms. (I've resisted taking any hormone replacement therapy. What about you?)
- Kicking the smoking habit: Smoking increases your risk of heart disease whether you're menopausal or not, but the stakes are much higher for women in general. (Never smoked and never will. What about you?)
Remember, heart disease is largely preventable with lifestyle modifications. Do everything you can to care for your heart now. And be empowered to take charge if something doesn't feel right.
Women often have different and more vague heart attack symptoms than men. Know the symptoms and listen to what your body is telling you.