Woman-to-Woman: How to Take Control of Your Heart Health
February is American Heart Month. As a doctor AND as a woman, here’s what you need to know about heart disease, your risks, and what you can do about it.
You may be surprised to learn that breast cancer is not the number one health risk women face.
In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. It takes more female lives than all cancers, respiratory diseases and Alzheimer’s combined, nearly 500,000 women each year!
Sadly, women are at greater risk due to gender bias in the healthcare system. Upon arrival in the hospital, a woman’s symptoms are more likely to be dismissed by medical professionals as something else.
Female patients also are referred for fewer in-hospital treatments such as angioplasty (surgery to clear blockages) then men in the U.S., which is one of the reasons we see a higher risk of death. Women also are less likely to be referred to and attend cardiac rehabilitation.
After their first heart attack, 26% of women age 45 and older die compared to 19% of men. However, only 42% of women aged 35 and older are concerned about heart disease.
It’s true that women have different and often more perplexing heart attack symptoms than men. While some women feel chest pain, many experience more subtle symptoms like sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, and discomfort in their arms, neck or jaw. Even though these symptoms are very common in women they are referred to as “atypical” and indirectly suggest that a woman’s experience is not normal.
Here’s how to take control of your heart health, and what you can do to reduce your risk:
1. Know your risk factors
Non-modifiable risk factors (things you can’t change):
Family history – you are at greater risk for developing heart disease if a male parent, sibling or child has suffered a heart attack before the age of 55, or if a female parent, sibling or child has suffered one before the age of 65.
Diabetes – you are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease if you have type 1 or 2 diabetes.
Age – your risk for cardiovascular disease doubles every decade after age 55.
Ethnicity – people with Asian or African ancestry are at higher risk than other racial groups.
Socioeconomic status – being poor, no matter where you live, increases the risk of heart disease. A lack of financial resources often leads to a chronically stressful life, social isolation, as well as anxiety and depression.
Modifiable risk factors (things you CAN change):
Smoking – smoking increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 300%; women who smoke are at greater risk than men who smoke.
Obesity – abdominal fat disrupts your metabolism and puts you at greater risk for heart disease by damaging arteries through elevated blood sugars, oxidative damage from inflammation, and high blood pressure.
Poor diet – a diet high in saturated fat and transfats increases your risk.
2. Reduce your risk
Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. High in fiber, they help modulate the levels of cholesterol in your blood vessels. They also contain bioactive compounds that protect your cardiovascular system. Here are some tips to help you incorporate more veggies into your daily life.
Eat healthy fats. We have gained a greater understanding of how fat affects lipid levels and cardiovascular risk; a low fat diet isn’t necessarily healthy. Healthy fats like those found in fish, avocado, olives, nuts and seeds are protective and lower inflammation.
Minimize sugar intake. Eating a diet high in sugar causes a process called glycation where sugar sticks to the inside of the vessels. This releases free radicals that damage the vessels and increase plaque buildup in your arteries.
Exercise. Studies show that 150 minutes of exercise per week will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.
Manage your blood pressure. High blood pressure damages the lining of blood vessels, making them less able to dilate and contract appropriately, which increases the risk of blockage.
Attend to your grief. Studies have shown that the loss of spouse increases the risk of heart attack and stroke for the next 30 days and during the first 24 hours of bereavement the risk 21 fold. The effect is intensified in the winter and more common in those with other risk factors. If you’ve lost a loved one, seek out help. Get support from friends, family or professionals. Find a support group so that you aren’t grieving alone. Give yourself time by clearing your schedule and allowing space to honor the person’s memory and work through your feelings.
3. Some supplements to consider
Coenzyme Q10 – also known as CoQ10, this compound plays a crucial role in creating the energy the heart needs to pump blood. Studies show that taking this supplement increases antioxidant activity, reduces oxidative stress in the vessels, and relieves symptoms of cardiovascular disease.
Green Tea – high in the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), it has long been known to protect the heart. Studies show benefit when consuming 5-6 cups per day. May also be taken in capsule form.
Pomegranate – this wonderful fruit is high in polyphenols, which are known to reverse atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and lower blood pressure.
Magnesium – this mineral can improve blood sugar and insulin levels as well as improve insulin resistance. It also helps dilate the blood vessels, lowers blood pressure, and calms the nervous system improving sleep and lowering stress.
Vitamin K2 – this nutrient helps move calcium out of the arteries and into the bones, which prevents calcification of the arteries and the development of atherosclerosis.
Finally, if your doctor isn't listening to you or taking your symptoms seriously, don't be afraid to find someone who will! You deserve quality healthcare, and a physician you can trust.
Work With Dr. Hillary Roland, ND
I am honored to support women during every stage of their lives in order to create a sense of deep well-being that empowers them to be their most authentic and most inspired selves.
If you have questions about your personal risk factors regarding heart disease and what you can do, schedule a new patient consult and we'll work together to asses your individual situation and come up with a plan.
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