As women, we fret about the health of our breasts and ovaries, and try to protect them with annual exams and runs for the cure. But when it comes to our hearts, most of us cross our fingers and hope the steady beating in our chests means everything is in working order.
“Women don’t think heart disease is something they need to worry about,” says Marla Kiess, a cardiologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. But heart disease is actually women’s biggest health risk — we’re eight times more likely to die from heart disease and stroke than we are from breast cancer. Here’s how to make sure your heart doesn’t miss a beat.
Telltale signs of heart trouble
Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart ailment, is the result of arteries becoming narrow or blocked, impeding blood from getting to your heart. While chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom in both men and women, women are more likely to experience subtler symptoms that can take them by surprise. “Instead of the Hollywood heart attack where a woman is clutching her chest, you may feel a pressure or tightness lower in your chest, or feel short of breath. Or you do some normal activity and feel exhausted,” says Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist in New York City and author of The Women’s Healthy Heart Program. “All of these could be signs your arteries are clogged and starving your heart of oxygenated blood.”
Risky business Thanks to their high levels of estrogen, women typically get heart disease about 10 years later than men do (around age 55), but that doesn’t mean you should put off prevention. You should start thinking about your heart health in your 20s and 30s because the building blocks for heart disease start early, says Goldberg.
Plus, most Canadian women are at risk for heart disease. Some of the risks we face — age and family history — are simply the luck of the draw. “But a large portion of the problem is related to lifestyle,” says Kiess. Making changes, such as quitting smoking or adopting healthy eating habits, can reduce your risk by as much as 80 percent. “It’s never too early — or too late — to make a lifestyle change,” adds Beth Abramson, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Three easy ways to reduce your risk
1. Quit smoking
The heart attack risk for women who smoke is 19 years earlier than for non-smokers.
Kicking the habit: Within a year of crushing out your last cigarette, your risk of a smoking-related heart attack is cut in half. Set a “quit date,” then write it down
and tell friends and family that you’re quitting. The more support you have, the easier it’ll be to butt out.
2: De-fat your diet
An unhealthy diet can kick up levels of bad cholesterol, which leads to plaque buildup in your artery walls. Obesity is another worry — if your waist measures more than 88 centimetres (35 inches), you’re considered at high risk for heart disease.
Eating better: Reducing your weight by as little as 10 percent can dramatically decrease your chances of heart attack. To help cut your cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight, eat a high-fibre, low-fat diet and manage portion sizes.
3. Exercise regularly
People who are physically inactive double their risk for heart disease and stroke.
Getting active: “Exercise lowers your blood pressure, reduces bad cholesterol and makes blood vessels more flexible, which helps them resist plaque buildup,” says Goldberg. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity each day. If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry: You don’t need to slip into spandex every day to get a quality workout. Whether it’s a quick walk around the block or time spent dancing with your kids, it all makes a difference to your heart health.
Foods to love
Halifax registered dietitian Tristaca Caldwell recommends adding these heart-healthy foods to your grocery list:
Good source of omega-3 fatty acid and protein — plus they’re high in fibre.
Aim for: 2 tbsp (30 mL) a day.
High in antioxidants and a good source of fibre and vitamin C.
Aim for: ½ cup (125 mL) a day.
An excellent source of protein and healthy fats, such as omega-3s.
Aim for: two 3 oz (85 g) servings a week.