Even if heart disease “doesn't run in your family,” this article
is for you. Even if you have low cholesterol levels and your
blood pressure is normal, this article is for you, too. This
information doubles as both prevention and treatment—
and its knowledge is critical for us all.
In the past, you may have thought of heart disease as an illness
that you associated predominately with men. These days, we
know that more than one in three women have some form
of cardiovascular disease. As of the 2016 fact sheet from the
American Heart Association, 398,086 females passed away from
cardiovascular disease or congenital cardiovascular disease,
with 402,851 males passing away from the same. Further,
they've found that 90 percent of women have one or more risk
factors for heart disease or stoke and that fewer women survive
their first heart attack than men. This illness clearly does not
favor one gender.
So, what causes heart disease? Simply put, cardiovascular
disease results when the lumens of the coronary arteries, which
carry blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the heart, become smaller.
This constriction can be caused by excess salt in the blood
pulling fluid from the arteries. Arteries are further constricted
by a buildup of fats, oxidized cholesterol, excess calcium, and
plaque in the artery walls. Angina, or chest pain, occurs when
the heart fails to receive enough oxygen through these narrowed
arteries. When these arteries become obstructed, a heart attack
can occur, resulting in damage to the heart tissue. This process
of plaque buildup and obstruction is known as atherosclerosis,
or hardening of the arteries.
What Are the Risks?
There are over 250 risk factors for heart disease that have been
identified. However, you'll be relieved to know that a large
number of these factors—including many that are especially
dangerous—can be lowered with lifestyle choices and changes.
However, two risk factors associated with heart disease are
beyond your control: heredity and age. For both men and
women, the closer your blood-tie to a relative who suffered from
heart disease, the greater your risk of developing it. In addition,
age is a factor for women. As women reach menopause, their
risk factor of developing heart disease rises significantly.
Regardless if your family history predisposes you to a higher
risk or not or your current age, there are certain risk factors that
you should be mindful to pay close attention to. Let's touch on
a few that you can begin making changes to reduce today.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is both a cause and an
effect of cardiovascular disease. The exact cause of hypertension
is generally unknown, but what we do know is that high blood
pressure often accompanies heart disease. The excessive force
of the blood against the arteries weakens the cellular walls,
allowing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, excess calcium, and other
toxic substances to form deposits that eventually block the
arteries. Almost 50 percent of all midlife women are diagnosed
with hypertension by age 50. Most who have hypertension are
unaware of it because it usually produces no physical symptoms.
Routine blood pressure checks, at least every two years,
can detect potential hypertension; blood pressure readings
above 140/90 may spell danger. Because so many test results
have shown a direct relationship between high salt intake
and hypertension, removing the salt shaker from your table
would be wise. Sodium is a factor in hypertension because
it causes fluid retention, which adds stress to both the heart
and the circulatory system. Hypertension, left undiagnosed or
untreated, can result in stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and
other serious diseases.
Let's face facts: if you still smoke, your chances of dying
from heart disease are almost three times as great as those
of dying from lung cancer. The negative effects of smoking
on your cardiovascular system are related to several actions.
Nicotine causes blood platelets to become sticky, increasing
plaque formation. Smoking also has been shown to decrease
levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and increase LDL (“bad”)
cholesterol. Cigarettes are high in cadmium, a toxic mineral that
damages heart tissue. The Nurses' Health Study, conducted by
Harvard researchers, found that women who smoked just one
to four cigarettes a day had nearly two and one-half times the
rate of heart disease of nonsmokers. Keep in mind that even
secondhand smoke increases your risk of heart disease, so
make your home and car smoke-free environments.
Unfortunately for us, weight appears to be a more significant
risk factor for women than it is for men. A study by Harvard
researcher JoAnn Manson, MD, found that in obese women,
seven out of ten cases of heart disease resulted from their
excess weight. Even women who are at the high end of their
“normal” range seem to have an increased risk. To compound
the problem, overweight women tend to be sedentary; they are
also more likely to develop hypertension, high LDL cholesterol
and triglycerides, and type 2 diabetes, all of which increase the
likelihood of heart disease. How the weight is distributed on your body also seems to have an impact.
Women with an apple body shape—who have a
proportionally higher amount of fat around their abdomen than
elsewhere on their body—have higher rates of heart disease,
hypertension, and diabetes than their pear-shaped sisters, who
carry their excess fat in their hips and thighs. Scientists believe
this association relates to the hormone cortisol, which causes
fatty acids to be released into the bloodstream from the central
fat cells. These cells are located close to your liver; the released
fatty acids stress the liver, causing cholesterol, blood pressure,
and insulin levels to rise. Psychology researcher Elissa S. Epel
has also discovered that apple-shaped women feel stress more
and produce more cortisol as a result than do pear-shaped
For us women, diabetes is an additional risk factor for heart
disease. Blood platelets in diabetics seem to stick together more
readily than in non-diabetics, causing clogging of the arteries.
Diabetics also have higher total cholesterol and lower HDL
cholesterol levels. Research shows that women over the age of
45 are twice as likely as men to develop type 2 (formerly known
as adult-onset) diabetes, and female diabetics are at double the
risk of heart disease of male diabetics. The good news is that
type 2 diabetes can be managed with diet and exercise.
A Sedentary Lifestyle
Movies depicting life on the nineteenth-century American
frontier and Canadian wilderness are harsh reminders of just
how physically demanding everyday life once was. We might
enjoy watching someone else chop wood, carry buckets of water
long distances, and walk behind a plow horse, but few of us
would trade in our computers, microwave ovens, and central
heating to live that life. All our muscles, including our heart,
need exercise, however. Exercise helps lower LDL cholesterol
and raise HDL cholesterol. Regular aerobic exercise—such as
walking, running, jumping rope, and dancing—reduces the
risk of heart disease by about 30 percent in postmenopausal
women. It also influences several other risk factors.
People who exercise regularly have a 35 percent lower risk
of hypertension, as well as a lower risk of diabetes. Exercise
stimulates production of serotonin, endorphins, and other
brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and stress and create a
balanced sleep-wake cycle, helping to control cortisol levels.
When you exercise, you also aid calcium metabolism, triggering
the calcification process within your bones so excess calcium
does not build up in your blood vessels. And you don't even
need to spend one to two hours a day in strenuous activity
to achieve cardiovascular benefits. Do keep in mind that over
exercising can be just as harmful as being a couch potato.
Moderate exercise, performed regularly, significantly decreases
your risk of heart disease.
No matter your age, stage, and gender, it's import to make
daily choices that love your heart and your health.