As a woman, you may be well aware of your risk for breast cancer and other female-related diseases, but what about your heart? Unfortunately, heart disease is a very real health concern, especially for women of all ages.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S., taking a woman’s life nearly every minute. If this comes as a shock, you’re not alone. A little more than half of women know just how serious heart disease is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Though heart disease also strikes men, women experience unique causes, symptoms and outcomes. What’s more, certain conditions may increase your risk for heart disease.
“Many women may be unaware of their potential risk for heart disease and even the unique signs they could experience,” said Ameera Ahmed, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Banner Health in Colorado.
Take your heart health seriously … at every age
There’s no time like the present to start focusing on your heart health. The good news is that it’s never too late to get healthy—but the sooner the better.
Dr. Ahmed shared five things you can do right now to lower your risk.
Know your risk factors
There are several medical conditions and lifestyle habits that can put you at greater risk for heart disease. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, inactivity and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease, and about half of all Americans have at least one risk factor. In addition, mental health can put women at greater risk as well.
“Evidence has shown those who experience anxiety, depression and chronic stress may experience certain physiological effects on their bodies, which can lead to metabolic disease and heart disease,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Women tend to neglect their health as they have many responsibilities, but it’s important to remember you can’t care for others without caring for yourself first.”
Family history is also an important risk factor. Talk to your health care provider and let them know if someone in your family has heart disease, especially if they developed it earlier in life (younger than age 65 for women; younger than age 55 for men).
Focus on heart health early on … if you can
You’re never too young to start paying attention to your heart health. According to a 2020 U.S. study, heart attacks are becoming more common in young women.
For women without a strong family history of heart disease, your 20s are a good time to start talking to your health care provider about screening earlier for heart disease and how to keep your heart healthy. It’s also a good time to start making healthy lifestyle choices that can affect you later.
“Many women also experience pregnancy during this time period,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Pregnant women should pay close attention to their blood pressure and if they have gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension or preeclampsia, which can all increase your risk for developing heart disease in the future.”
Recognize the symptoms
In women, the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can be quite different from men, so it’s not uncommon for some women to mistake a heart attack for something else.
“You may not have the crushing chest pain seen in men; it may feel more like acid reflux, a gradual slowing down in activity or just shortness of breath,” Dr. Ahmed said.
In addition, you may also experience:
- Jaw, neck or arm pain
“My recommendation is always to seek help when something doesn’t feel right or feels out of the ordinary for you as you know your body,” Dr. Ahmed said.
Eat right, exercise and create healthy habits
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease, as well as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating a diet high in saturated fat and added sugars. Although some risk factors are out of your control, here are some changes proven to lower your risk:
- Eat a plant-based diet. Eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables with healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. “Plant-based diets don’t have to be all or nothing,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Even making an effort to eat one plant-based meal a day can help.”
- Exercise regularly. Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity every day. Using a fitness tracker is a great way to optimize healthy habits and monitor heart health.
- Stop unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking too much. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can have damaging effects on your heart and other parts of your body. If you smoke, quit. If you drink, aim for no more than one drink a day for women.
Don’t skip routine doctor visits or screenings. Heart disease can be difficult to predict, especially if you don’t have symptoms. Get your annual well woman exams and physicals to screen for things like high cholesterol or high blood pressure and get a lipid screening if you’re at an increased risk for heart disease.
“Lipid screenings are recommended for both men and women (men at age 35 and women at age 45 and older),” Dr. Ahmed said. “Talk to your doctor about screening earlier if you have risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and early family history of heart disease.”
You can take a heart age test to learn more about your heart risk.
Don’t forget to talk to your girlfriends about their heart health as well. Encourage them to get regular wellness checks so you all stay around much longer.
Bottom line: It’s never too early to be concerned about your heart health.