Are You Making These 16 Heart Health Mistakes?

Heart health mistakes that midlife women over 40 make, and how to keep your heart healthy.

By Amanda Gardner

1. You sweat silently through hot flashes

Those flashes could be linked to high blood pressure. A preliminary study found that women who reported being bothered by hot flashes during a two-week span had significantly higher blood pressure than those who were untroubled. The link could be due to an increase in norepinephrine, a hormone that can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and blood-sugar levels, according to study author Linda M. Gerber, PhD, of Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City. Be sure to have your blood pressure checked regularly, and if you have a lot of hot flashes, tell your doctor about them. While the study did not specify the exact number of hot flashes, experts consider more than eight to 10 episodes a day above normal.

2. You exercise for 20 minutes a day

Bump it up. The new American Heart Association guidelines recommend 60 to 90 minutes of exercise most days for women who want to maintain or lose weight. Extra weight taxes the heart by elevating blood pressure, raising levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lowering HDL cholesterol. Hitting this exercise mark is even more important after 40, because hormonal shifts make weight loss more difficult just when staying lean becomes crucial for heart protection. Regular workouts will also improve circulation and overall heart function, as well as help stave off depression, a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

3. You stopped taking hormone therapy to spare your heart

Not so fast. While the 2002 findings from the Women’s Health Initiative showed that HT increased the risk of heart attacks, recent research suggests the reverse may be true if it’s used at the right time. Results from a substudy by the WHI released this summer found that younger postmenopausal women (50 to 59) on estrogen-only therapy had 40 to 60 percent lower levels of calcium deposits in their arteries than women who weren’t taking any hormones. Calcium is one of the components of plaque and is a marker for future heart attack risk.

"These findings do provide reassurance for recently menopausal women who are considering hormone therapy for the short-term treatment of menopausal symptoms," says lead author JoAnn Manson, MD, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. "The evidence is mounting that a woman’s age and length of time since menopause influences the effects of estrogen on health, particularly the risk of heart disease." Talk with your doctor to see if you should consider it.

4. You worry only about "bad" cholesterol

Take a look at your other blood fats too. New research shows that when it comes to reducing plaque in arteries, raising HDL ("good") cholesterol is as crucial as lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol. "Low HDL may be a more important risk factor in women," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, of the Women’s Heart Program at New York University. Each one-point increase in HDL lowers heart disease risk by three percent; that same increase lowers a man’s risk by only one percent. Talk with your doctor about reaching your numbers (LDL below 100, HDL above 50) without drugs. You may be able to raise your HDL by exercising, quitting smoking, losing weight, and eliminating trans fats.

And don’t neglect triglycerides, which can also clog arteries. While experts don’t understand exactly why, high levels pose a greater danger to women than to men; they recommend keeping your number below 150 through diet, exercise and, if needed, medication. A reading of more than 200 doubles your risk of heart disease. Be sure your triglycerides are evaluated along with your cholesterol.

5. You take aspirin daily for heart insurance

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