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Heart Health for Women

Women face specific health risks that directly affect their hearts. How can women keep their hearts healthy and strong?

According to the American Heart Association, approximately one in every three female deaths is due to heart disease, making it the number one health threat to women. In the year 2017, the American Cancer Society affirmed that 40,610 women died from breast cancer. Yet in the same year there were six times as many female deaths from heart disease than there were from breast cancer.

Even though women are six times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer, more women are aware of the dangers, risk factors, and warning signs of breast cancer than they are for heart disease. Because heart disease poses such a tremendous threat, it is essential that women take steps to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Why are women having more heart attacks today compared with 50 years ago?

  • More women in the work place. Today, more women are a part of the work force. Women are receiving a higher level of education, enabling them to secure many different types of jobs. So along with this advancement, women have become more susceptible to stress which leads to heart disease. Also, increased numbers of women have become the primary breadwinners for their families. These women must juggle both home and career.

  • Changes to the American diet. With women being added to the work force, they are unable to spend as much time preparing meals. Women are eating more processed foods, and fewer fruits and vegetables. Women are eating out more frequently. Eating establishments offer a limited menu which can restrict healthy food selection.

  • Decreased physical activity – Our society is becoming increasingly more sedentary. Technical and higher level careers tend to be centered on computers and electronics. There is decreased need for intense physical labor. Women spend more time seated than standing. This lowers blood circulation and aerobic activity. With women working more than 40 hours a week, there is less time to exercise.

  • Higher stress levels in women – Stress levels contribute to cardiovascular disease. Hormonal changes and elevated cortisol levels can put more strain on the heart. Cortisol can also affect blood sugar levels which is associated with weight gain.

Women are anatomically and physiologically different from men. One of the most notable differences is the ability to bear children. Women have a uterus designed to carry a baby. During pregnancy, the heart must work harder. Cardiac output increases during the first 2 trimesters of pregnancy, increasing to 50% above a woman’s pre-pregnancy output. During labor there is tremendous strain on the heart. A woman’s body is especially designed to handle the additional blood volume during pregnancy, as well as the increased strain of labor. While she is pregnant, a woman’s heart changes positions slightly. It begins to shift upward and to the left to accommodate the growing baby.

What are other risk factors to consider?

  • Endometriosis can elevate a woman’s chances of developing coronary artery disease and having a heart attack. This is due to increased inflammation in the body along with higher cholesterol levels.

  • Conditions that develop during pregnancy (such as diabetes and high blood pressure) can increase the risk of getting heart and circulatory conditions later in life.

  • Women’s hearts are generally smaller in size compared to men’s hearts. This means that their hearts must work harder because they are unable to pump as much volume.

  • When a woman has a heart attack, her symptoms can be different from a man’s symptoms. For example, a woman may suffer exhaustion, digestive symptoms (nausea and vomiting), back pain, and jaw pain. It is possible for a woman to have a heart attack without suffering chest discomfort.

  • Heart disease can be undiagnosed in women. Because women do not have “traditional” symptoms of heart complications, they are frequently misdiagnosed. Women also do not seek medical attention because they do not associate their symptoms with having a heart problem.

  • Taking birth control can increase a woman’s risk for heart attack. The combined effects of birth control with smoking, can greatly add to a woman’s risk of heart attack.

  • Women often put their families first, neglecting their own health. Women are natural caregivers. They tend to place the needs of their families and loved ones above their own. This translates to a lack of self-care. They are overworked and stressed, without spending enough time to relax and recharge. Their hearts can’t keep up.

What does the heart do?

A healthy heart never stops beating. It never stops pumping blood throughout the body. It can beat over 3 billion times during your lifetime. When you sprain your ankle, you can ice it, elevate it, and wrap your ankle in a bandage so it can rest. When you break your arm, you can place it inside a cast and give it weeks to heal. Yet, this isn’t true for the heart. Even when the heart becomes injured or damaged, it must continue beating. It never gets an opportunity to stop and rest. Your heart can never take a vacation. If it stops pumping blood, your body will die. Because your heart is unable to take a break to relax and repair, you must take care of it along the way.

How to become more heart healthy?

  • Sleep better – Most people need 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night to feel energized and refreshed. During deep sleep, your heart can relax and heal more efficiently. Adequate amounts of sleep also decrease stress levels. People who receive enough sleep are generally calmer and more relaxed.

  • Manage stress – Stress can elevate your blood pressure and damage the lining of blood vessels. Stress is also associated with elevated inflammation within the body. It is important to find healthy ways to reduce and manage stress levels.

  • Stay active – Daily hobbies and activities such as gardening, walking, biking, golfing, fishing, light yard work, dancing, and taking your dog to the park, can strengthen your heart. Try to spend less time on the computer or in front of the television.

  • Avoid tobacco – Kick your nicotine habit. When you quit smoking, you not only help your heart; you also reduce your risk of getting cancer.

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables – Add extra fruits and veggies to your diet. Try new recipes and substitute fruits as snacks, rather than partaking in processed snacks and sugary confections.

  • Watch your waistline – Where you store your excess body fat can be an indication of heart risk. If your body is shaped like an apple (with excess padding around your belly) or pear (with excess padding along your hips), you have a greater chance of developing problems with your heart and circulation.

  • Don’t dwell on past mistakes – Don’t get stuck in a rut. Become more optimistic. Look forward to future success.

  • Drink responsibly – An occasional glass of red wine is fine, but over-drinking can negatively affect your weight and your heart.

  • Make time to laugh – Laugh at your own mistakes. Spend time with good friends. Find time to smile. People who smile more have less heart trouble.

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