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 women.
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.
Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS
Visionary health expert Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, has always been a trendsetter. With millions of followers nationwide, she has the uncanny ability to pinpoint major health concerns and provide solutions years ahead of anybody else.
Highly respected as the grande dame of alternative health and award-winning author of 30 books, she single-handedly launched the weight loss/detox revolution in her New York Times bestseller The Fat Flush Plan. A Connecticut College and Teachers College, Columbia University graduate, Dr. Ann Louise was recognized as one of the top ten nutritionists in the country by Self magazine and was the recipient of the American Medical Writers Association award for excellence. She has been a popular columnist for First magazine since 2003.