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Women’s Health: Know Your Risk Factors for Heart Disease

February 08, 2021

The first Friday of February is National Wear Red Day® -- part of the American Heart Association’s signature Go Red for Women® initiative to raise awareness about women’s heart health and to inspire women to make changes to improve their lives. Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented.

According to the American Heart Association’s 2021 Heart Disease & Stroke Statistics, heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths among women each year. What’s more, research indicates heart attacks are on the rise in young women. A study published in Circulation suggested younger women, along with Black and Hispanic women, are not aware of the threat heart disease poses. Many also do not know the warning signs of heart attacks and strokes.

It is important to know your risk factors for heart disease in order to take action to reduce your personal risk. It’s also important to know what a heart attack looks like.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Being a woman automatically increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. There are many additional factors to consider as well, some of which you can control and others, like age, family health history, race and previous heart attack or stroke, cannot be controlled. So let’s focus on the factors you can control, because even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can improve your heart health and reduce your risk.

  • High Blood Pressure -- Normal blood pressure for a woman over 20 should be less than 120/80 mm. High blood pressure (HBP) is called the silent killer because there are no symptoms. HBP makes the heart work harder and if left untreated can cause a heart attack, stroke or a number of serious health problems. Women are at increased risk of developing HBP if they are 20 pounds or more overweight, have a family history of HBP, or have reached menopause. There is no cure for HBP, but it can be managed with exercise, weight loss, and a diet low in salt, saturated fats, cholesterol and alcohol.


  • Smoking -- You probably know smoking increases your risk of lung cancer, but did you know it increases your risk of heart disease? The American Heart Association says smokers are two-to-four times more likely to develop heart disease. What’s more, women who smoke have a 25-percent higher risk compared to men who smoke.


  • Cholesterol -- Our bodies need cholesterol to function, but too much HDL (bad) cholesterol or too little LDL (good) cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries over time and lead to blood clots, heart attacks or stroke. It’s important to monitor your cholesterol. If it’s high, you can control it with diet changes and even medication. Your diet should be low in saturated and trans fats. This means limiting red and processed meats, salty foods, sweets and sugary beverages. A heart healthy diet should include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts.


  • Exercise -- If you’re not physically active, you’re at increased risk of developing blood clots, high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke and other heart problems. Just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day can improve your heart health. It can reduce heart disease by 30-40 percent and stroke by 25 percent. Exercise can also give you more energy, reduce stress, improve your mood and help you sleep better, so get up and start moving!


  • Weight -- Women who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for heart disease. Knowing your Body Mass Index (BMI) will help you determine if you’re at a healthy or unhealthy weight:
    • Underweight: BMI less than 18.5
    • Healthy weight: BMI less than 25
    • Overweight: BMI between 25 and 29.9
    • Obese: BMI 30 or higher

Losing weight is hard, and if you try to lose the weight all at once you’re likely going to gain it right back. Take it slowly. Focus on making good food choices and avoid foods that are high in sugar, saturated and trans fats, and calories. The good news is the American Heart Association says losing just 10 pounds can lower your heart disease risk.

  • Diabetes -- Adults with diabetes are two-to-four times more likely to have heart disease or stroke than adults who do not have diabetes. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (type 1) or the body develops insulin resistance (type 2). Type 2 diabetes can be prevented with diet and exercise. While there is no cure for diabetes, it can be controlled, so talk to your doctor about a treatment plan.


Know the Warning Signs of Heart Attack

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone in the United States suffers a heart attack every 40 seconds. When a heart attack strikes, minutes matter because the longer the heart goes without blood, the more damage it suffers.

Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arm or shoulder
  • Feeling nauseous, lightheaded, or unusually tired

Women are more likely than men to suffer shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you think you may be suffering a heart attack, call 911 right away. Do not wait. Your chances of surviving a heart attack are better the sooner treatment begins.

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