Last week you learned that heart disease is the number one killer of women. The good news is that heart disease begins slowly and worsens over time so there are things you can do to prevent it or at least slow down its progress. How great is your risk of developing heart disease? Let’s find out. Risk factors are behaviors or conditions that increase your chances of developing a disease. There are two kinds of risk factors—those we can’t change (unalterable) and those we can (alterable). The good news is that we can change the majority of our risk factors for heart disease. So let’s start with a quick look at the ones we can’t—age and family history.
While most of us would love to have the ability to change our ages, we all know that isn’t going to happen. Much like our waistlines, our risk of heart disease increases with age. Women between the ages of 40 and 60 are more likely to begin developing heart disease, with the primary risk factor being 55 years of age or older. The second unalterable risk factor is family history. I always say, if you want a clue to what’s going on with you, take at look at the “gene pool” you’re swimming in. If a member of your family has a history of heart disease, you are more likely to develop it. The highest risk is if your mother was diagnosed with heart disease or stroke before 60 years of age.
Now let’s move on to those things we can control. One of the most dominant and independent cardiovascular risk factors for women (especially for those younger than 55 years of age) is cigarette smoking. As a risk factor, smoking accounts for at least one half of all cardiac events. One study found that women who smoke have a two- to six-fold increase in their risk of heart attack. So ladies, walk away from the cigarettes and do it now!
Second is the nemesis of over-50 aged women everywhere—weight! Women who are overweight have a two to three times greater risk of heart attack than lean women. To see where you stand, you should know your Body Mass Index and waist circumference. I know, sometimes it’s just easier to ignore those numbers, but we need to know so here is what you do—multiply your weight in pounds (in underwear, but no shoes) by 703; divide the answer by your height in inches; then divide that answer by your height in inches. A BMI score of 25 to 29.9 means you are overweight and 30 or greater means you are obese (don’t you hate that word). Your waistline should be 35 inches or less. So, depending on your numbers, put down that muffin and start walking.
And that brings us to our next risk factor—physical inactivity. If you get less than 30 minutes of physical activity on most days, I’m talking to you. Future articles will talk about how much exercise and what types help lower this risk factor. For now, just know that you are going to have to make time to give your heart some healthy pumping.
If you haven’t had a check-up recently, you should plan to see your health care professional for help in assessing your other risk factors. They are: hypertension (blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg or above), diabetes or fasting blood sugar of 126 mg/dL or higher, and high cholesterol (total cholesterol of 200mg/dL or higher, with HDL less than 40mg/dL.
These are the primary indicators that you might be on a collision course with a major cardiac event that could change or end your life. In addition, some evidence exists to support the theory that our emotional state can contribute to these risk factors. Highly stressed women may be at higher risk for heart disease. While this hasn’t been scientifically proven, it certainly makes sense that the changes to our bodies occurring when we are under constant stress can’t be good for our cardiovascular system or anything else!
Next week we will talk about symptoms of heart disease and what to do if you believe you or someone you love is having a heart attack. Until then, think about your current lifestyle in light of your risk factors, and ask yourself if you can afford to delay making some healthy changes in how you live.