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Since you love with all your heart, you should do your best to protect it. Which is easier said than done, of course…
February is Heart Health Month, but honestly—and I’m not just saying this because I’m the daughter of a cardiologist—every month should be Heart Health Month. This is because heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. (Source: The Heart Foundation) Every year, 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease. While it’s indeed quite scary to think that even relatively healthy individuals can have heart attacks, raising awareness about heart health can potentially save lives, including yours.
In this feature, we explore heart health, and examine why it’s so crucial for women to reduce their stress levels in an attempt to lower their risk of a fatal heart attack. Read on to learn more, and don’t hesitate to see your physician about your heart health. Encourage friends and family members—especially the stubborn ones—to see a physician as well.
What causes heart attacks?
“Cardiovascular disease and the progression of arterial plaque are based on several factors,” says Dr. James Pinckney II, a Dallas, TX-based family physician and founder of Diamond Luxury Healthcare. “Genetics, diet, and lifestyle all play a major role. The element that truly causes arterial plaque to rupture and subsequent clot formation leading to a heart attack is inflammation.”
Arterial inflammation, he adds, can be caused by consuming saturated fats, sugar, red meat, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, sedentary lifestyle, low anti-oxidant rich diet, and stress.
“Women can decrease arterial inflammation by adhering to a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Pinckney. “The key to avoiding a heart attack is prevention as well as taking a proactive approach to your health.”
I exercise daily. I’ll be OK, right?
“Women who exercise are generally healthier, cardiovascular-wise,” says Dr. Jerry A. Sokol, a cardiologist at Northwell Health Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, NY. “Exercise not only improves physical cardio fitness, but it’s generally a good outlet for stress reduction while mentally improving your mood and levels of happiness.”
Additionally, he adds, it lowers blood pressure, weight, and therefore reduces the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Does age come into play?
According to Dr. Sokol, men tend to get heart disease earlier (younger) than women. However, in no way does this mean women are "in the clear."
"After menopause, women catch up very quickly to men when it comes to risk factors for heart disease," explains Dr. Sokol. "This is because estrogen is a protectant against coronary disease in women; estrogen levels drop post-menopause."
How should I change my diet?
Dr. Sokol advises women to embrace a diet loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits—organic is best—and avoid highly processed foods, especially carbohydrates; reduce your red meat and your dairy intake and don’t shy away from almonds and walnuts.
“There are so many benefits to healthy eating,” says Dr. Sokol. “You’ll have more energy, weight control, and can help prevent or reverse diabetes, which are pre-cursors of cardiovascular disease.”
Plus, avoid tobacco products, sleep for at least 8 hours every night, and drink plenty of water, says Dr. Pinckney. “Exercise for at least 30 minutes daily, limit foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar,” he adds.
By taking better care of yourself, explains Dr. Sokol, you can modify the risk factors that you have; but unfortunately you can't change genetics if you have a family history of heart disease. "Hopefully, you can do enough of the other things--exercise, eating healthy... to potentially stay away from a heart attack," he says.
And that’s just the beginning…
What should I discuss with my doctor?
According to Dr. Pinckney, ask your doctor about cardiovascular inflammatory testing, carotid intima media thickness scans, calcium coronary scores, and advanced cholesterol testing, so you can truly understand your risks.
Dr. Sokol advises women to check in with their primary care physician and to not neglect doctor's appointments; after age 40 your doctor may want to send you to a cardiologist if you’re showing symptoms of heart disease or have high blood pressure.
“Your physician can pick up on specific factors, such as high cholesterol and diabetes, and work with you on correcting unhealthy habits or trends, which can head off potential trouble in the future.”
What are some ways to reduce stress, which is a trigger for heart attacks in women?
The American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign, has a few recommendations to get you started:
- Take a deep breath. Carve out time for meditation, deep breathing, yoga or tai chi, crank up some tunes or go for a short walk. Whatever activity you find calming, find the time to do it every day for at least 15 minutes.
- Give up your vices. Overdoing it with alcohol or caffeine can put stress into overdrive, so try to cut back as much as possible. If you smoke, you already know it’s a bad habit. Drop it. We know quitting isn’t easy, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Burn some steam. Give your endorphins a boost with regular physical activity. Exercise relieves mental and physical tension, and anyone who has experienced runner’s high knows what we mean. Not to mention, physically active adults have a lower risk of depression and function better mentally. Try walking, swimming, biking or another form of cardio every day.
- Consider stress management. If you’re always in a rush, impatient, hostile or constantly stressed, stress management classes might be worth looking into. They’re usually held at community colleges, rehab programs or hospitals, and your healthcare professional can likely recommend one for you.