10 Ways Women Can Prevent Heart Disease

Three UConn Health cardiologists share top tips for women's heart health, including cutting salt, adhering to medication, and laughing.

illustration. (iStock Image)

Women's Heart Health illustration. (iStock Image)

February is American Heart Month, and later this week, National Wear Red Day on Friday, Feb. 5 is designed to help raise awareness about heart disease among women.

UConn cardiologists Drs. Anjanette Ferris, Agnes Kim, and Joyce Meng say all women need to start taking action today to prevent the development of heart disease and to maintain their overall heart health.

“Heart disease is still the number one killer of women in our country,” says Ferris, assistant professor of medicine at the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiovascular Center at UConn Health. “While we have made some gains in raising awareness, more than one in three females in their lifetime will be affected by cardiovascular diseases. The prevalence of heart disease is still too high, and more needs to be done to prevent it.”

Ferris, Kim, and Meng encourage you to wear red on Feb. 5 as a reminder of the importance of women’s heart health. Here are their top 10 recommendations for ways a woman can prevent heart disease and maintain heart health:

Be Aware of Your Body
Each year, make sure you go for your annual physical exam. If during the year you ever experience any new or unusual symptoms, or changes in your health, bring them to the attention of your doctor as soon as possible. Keeping open lines of communication with your physician is really important for your health. “If you are unable to climb a set of stairs like you used to, bring it to your doctor’s attention,” says Meng. “When it comes to heart disease women are different than men. When women get heart disease, they are often older and much sicker. This is why it is critical for women to make time to take care of themselves daily to prevent heart disease, and get medically screened annually.”

Recognize the Warning Signs
“Not all women have the typical warning signs of an impending heart attack, such as chest pain or chest discomfort,” says Kim. “Women can often experience more variable symptoms that are atypical.” Heart attack symptoms in women can include shortness of breath, unusual chest pressure, abdominal discomfort, heartburn, jaw pain, neck pain, arm or shoulder pain, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. Most importantly, if you think you are having symptoms related to a heart attack, don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1 right away.

Practice a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
“While we can’t change our family history and genetics, more than 80 percent of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented with simple, daily lifestyle modifications,” says Ferris. “Each woman needs to work to manage the six modifiable risk factors of cardiovascular disease and keep them under control.” These risk factors are: high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, and smoking tobacco. “Absolutely don’t smoke cigarettes,” stresses Kim. “Smoking is one of the leading threats to your cardiac health. It narrows and hardens your arteries, leading to heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. If you already have heart or vascular disease, the best thing you can do for your health is to quit smoking. There are local and national resources to help you quit, such as the Freedom From Smoking program offered by UConn Health.”

Exercise Daily
“Exercise is the best medicine,” says Ferris. You must get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day. This can be achieved simply by brisk walking. “Recent studies suggest that physical inactivity or having a sedentary lifestyle may be almost as bad as smoking tobacco,” adds Kim. “Don’t just sit. Make sure you get up and move each day. Any form of physical activity is good for your heart health.” The UConn Health cardiologists recommend that you walk as much as you can, take the stairs when available, and park farther away from the door of your destination. Also, they advise that you try to set a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day, and track your distance with a pedometer, a smartphone app, or Fitbit technology. To stay committed to daily exercise, says Meng, “There is no specific exercise prescription, just do whatever you love doing to stay active.”

Eat Healthy Daily
“Each day eat a well balanced diet with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables,” says Meng. “Also, make sure you are drinking enough water.” She recommends that you make sure to control your portion sizes, and remember to keep everything in moderation, including sweet desserts and alcohol consumption. Also, avoid fried foods often containing trans-fats, and choose foods that are low in saturated fats, simple carbohydrates (sugar), and salt. Kim adds the following recommendations: “At least half your plate should be made up of vegetables. For protein sources, go for fish, poultry, beans, and legumes. For snacks, eat fruits, nuts, and seeds. In general, avoid processed foods and go for whole, fresh foods.”

Cut Your Sugar
Research shows sugar is linked to obesity, which can lead to the development of heart disease. Meng says, “One of the first questions I ask my patients is: ‘What do you drink?’” She recommends women cut their soda intake and limit sweets. According to Meng, even a lot of juices that appear to be fresh and healthy are high in sugar content. She stresses that everyone should read the labels of their drinks and foods carefully. New 2016 U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that sugar only account for up to 10 percent of your recommended daily 2,000 calorie diet.

Cut Your Salt
Higher salt intake is associated with high blood pressure or hypertension, one of the leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The latest U.S. dietary guidelines call for reduced salt in the American diet to under 2,300 milligrams. But salt is present in a great deal of our food, including canned foods, frozen meals, and meats. “Try to choose leaner meats, and avoid processed meats such as cold-cuts that are higher in salt content,” says Meng.

Better Manage Your Stress
According to Kim, continuous stress can increase your risk of heart disease and lead to the narrowing of your arteries. “Exercise is the best form of stress management,” she says. “Other methods to manage stress are yoga, meditation, writing in a journal, talking things over with your spouse or friends, and just simply laughing. Laughing actually lowers the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, enhances your immune system, causes muscle relaxation, and is a great workout for your heart and lungs.”

Know Your Numbers
In addition to knowing your family history of heart disease, Kim says you should know your blood pressure readings and your cholesterol levels, especially HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Hypertension is defined as a blood pressure that is greater than 140/90 mmHg. However, if you have diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease, the goal blood pressure is less than 130/70 mmHg or even lower. If your hypertension or high cholesterol is not well controlled through lifestyle modification, prescription medication may be necessary for you to obtain a healthy blood pressure or cholesterol level.

Adhere to Your Medication
“Complying with your prescribed cardiovascular medication is extremely important to managing your heart health and preventing future cardiac events,” says Meng. “Listen to your doctor’s recommendations. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, it’s important to lower and maintain them to safe levels with prescribed medication to protect your heart, and prevent the chance of a heart attack and stroke.”