Many women think of heart disease as a man’s disease. In reality, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the leading cause of death for women age 65 and older and the second leading cause of death among women ages 45 to 64 in the United States and Canada. It includes many conditions, such as myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, hypertension, stroke and valvular heart disease. More women than men die from heart disease. This may be because it is detected at later stages in women than in men as women’s symptoms can be different than men’s.
Menopause and CVD risk
After menopause, however, a woman’s risk increases, leading some to suggest that estrogen provides cardioprotective benefits. The extent to which lowered estrogen levels may lead to an increase in CVD risk is not clear, but research continues, including investigations into whether hot flashes are related to a woman’s CVD risk.
Major risk factors associated with CVD in women include:
- Age 55 or older
- Cigarette smoking
- Sedentary lifestyle
- African-American heritage
- High cholesterol
- Poor diet, obesity, metabolic syndrome
- Family history of CVD
- Premature menopause, especially if reached before age 35
Your clinician may use the Framingham Risk Score to estimate your 10-year risk for developing CVD events. Points are assigned to various levels of risk, which are then translated into the 10-year estimated risk for CVD events. Risk factors included are age, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, ongoing treatment for hypertension and cigarette smoking.
Maintaining heart health
Women with risk factors for CVD should initiate lifestyle changes to decrease their overall risk:
Don’t smoke. Smokers are considerably more likely to have a heart attack than nonsmokers. But there’s good news. When a woman stops smoking, no matter how long or how much she smoked, her risk of heart disease drops rapidly. There are many other good reasons not to smoke. These include increased vitality, improved appearance, and decreased risk of osteoporosis and cancer of the cervix, lungs, mouth and throat. There are numerous programs and aids available to help women quit smoking. A good place to start is smokefree.gov/.
Control blood pressure. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is defined as an arm cuff reading greater than 140/90 mm Hg. It is preferable to keep blood pressure below 120/80.Even mild elevations can double the risk of stroke or heart attack. High blood pressure becomes more common as women age. In fact, more than 50 percent of all women over age 55 are affected. Black women are especially susceptible. Regular blood pressure testing is important because high blood pressure rarely causes symptoms. High blood pressure can be controlled by eating a healthy diet, limiting salt and alcohol, exercising on a regular basis and reducing stress.
Control cholesterol. Bringing cholesterol levels to within normal limits has a significant impact on heart disease risk. Total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL. Other goals include maintaining high levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, the “good cholesterol”) and low levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, the “bad cholesterol”). Target levels for HDL are at least 50 mg/dL; for LDL, optimal levels are less than 100 mg/dL, even lower for women with heart disease risks. To lower your cholesterol, be sure to maintain a healthy weight, exercise, and make HDL fats and fiber part of your diet.