There is a positive aspect to heart disease-it is often preventable. Most of the risk factors are easily changed or avoided to promote a heart-healthy lifestyle. Even if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease, you can avoid some of the major risk factors and significantly reduce your personal risk.
These are the most common preventable risk factors associated with heart disease:
According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. Women who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmoking women. Smoking is also a major risk factor for stroke. It raises your blood pressure and can raise levels of "bad" blood cholesterol (LDL). Beyond the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, smoking can lead to many types of cancer (lung, mouth, kidney, cervical, urinary tract), as well as bronchitis and emphysema. Simply put: smoking is a danger to just about every aspect of your physical health.
High blood pressure (hypertension)
High blood pressure is one of the primary risk factors for heart disease, heart failure and stroke. Nearly a third of American women have high blood pressure, yet many are not aware that they have it. High blood pressure is considered to be anything over 120/80 mm Hg. Hypertension is often referred to as the "silent killer" because it usually exhibits no symptoms and often goes unnoticed until it is too late.
High blood cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in the bloodstream and in the membranes of every cell of your body. Your body needs cholesterol to function properly; however, it makes on its own all the cholesterol it needs. That means any cholesterol you consume from food is unnecessary and, if not kept in check, can build up on artery walls and lead to cardiovascular disease.
Overweight and obesity
Carrying around extra weight puts an unnecessary strain on your entire body, including your heart, circulatory system, lungs, bones and joints. Being overweight or obese puts you at risk for other serious health conditions in addition to heart disease, including diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, cancer and sleep apnea (a condition that causes you to briefly and repeatedly stop breathing while you sleep). More than 60 percent of American women are either overweight or obese. These classifications are determined by a formula that takes into consideration weight and height. The resulting number is referred to as body mass index (BMI). Overweight is defined as a BMI between 25 and 29.9. Obesity is a BMI higher than 30. You can determine your own BMI using a BMI calculator.
Even if you avoid all the other risk factors for heart disease, if you do not get the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity a day, you are at an increased risk of developing heart disease. Unfortunately, the majority of women fit into this category-60 percent of American women are not physically active enough to maintain a healthy heart.
Diabetes is a serious health condition in which the body has difficulty regulating blood sugar due to insufficient production of the hormone insulin. Women with diabetes are at an especially high risk of dying from heart disease or stroke. Other dangers associated with diabetes include kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, Alzheimer's disease and lower limb amputation.
Stress may also influence the rate of heart attacks among women. While the precise physical affects of stress are difficult to quantify, many studies have reported a connection between stress and heart disease. The most common "trigger" reported by heart attack victims, for instance, is an emotionally upsetting event, particularly involving anger. The ways that individuals cope with stress may also contribute to heart disease, behaviors such as overeating, smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. Acute and chronic stress have been shown to affect other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You can take steps toward managing stress by maintaining a positive social network of friends and family and participating in regular physical activity. If you feel that the level of stress in your life has become unmanageable, you may consider talking with your doctor.
The birth control pill has also been associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease; however, the new low-dose pills seem to have made this risk negligible. Smoking while taking the birth control pill, especially after the age of 35, puts you at a high risk for cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke. You should never smoke while taking the pill.
There are some risk factors you can't prevent. These include:
Your risk for cardiovascular disease increases as you age and is amplified after menopause due to a reduction in the hormone estrogen.
If you have a family history of heart disease in any form, you may be at a greater risk for developing heart disease yourself.
African American and Hispanic women have higher rates of some risks for heart disease. Studies have found that African American women are more likely to be affected by high blood pressure, that hemorrhagic stroke is much more common in Hispanic women, and that both groups of women are at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.