Twice as many American women die from cardiovascular disease than die from all forms of cancer combined, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Women’s Health. Preventing heart disease comes down to making healthy choices, and then acting on them. Here, three local cardiovascular specialists discuss the keys to maintaining heart health.
“As cliché as it sounds, there is no magic bullet,” says Jeanne Cleveland, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at St. John’s Mercy Heart and Vascular Hospital. “Everyone needs to eat a healthy diet, exercise and not smoke.”
“To maintain a healthy heart, you should eat high-fiber foods, fish, lean meats, and foods low in saturated and trans fats,” Cleveland says. For those who enjoy a glass of wine with their meals, Cleveland has good news: “Yes, one-half to one glass of alcohol per day is beneficial to your heart,” she says. However, the American Heart Association warns that more than one drink per day for women may increase cardiovascular risk, so moderation is key.
If you think your diet doesn’t make much difference, consider that “daily consumption of these types of foods and alcohol can reduce the risk of heart attack by 50 percent or more,” Cleveland says. “While this disease kills more women than breast cancer, it is also one of the only diseases in which most risk factors can be modified early and prevented.”
Physical activity is another key ingredient in a heart-healthy lifestyle, says Denise Janosik, MD, a SLUCare cardiologist and director of SLUCare‘s LIVEWell program, a healthy lifestyle and cardiovascular risk-reduction program.
“In LIVEWell, we often find that people don’t perceive that they have enough time to make healthy choices,” she says. “Also, many people don’t know where to start with an exercise plan. But we need to remove those barriers. Plan when you’ll exercise, just like you plan anything else. Put it on your calendar.”
Janosik stresses that it’s never too late to begin a simple walking program, although it’s a good idea to check with your physician first. “Think of it as a prescription,” she advises. “People don’t think anything of taking pills once they’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, but to do what’s needed for prevention – people simply procrastinate.”
Setting appointments to exercise with a friend or a personal trainer can help overcome excuses. “We notice that people seem to be most successful when they are accountable,” Janosik says. “And once they start a regular exercise program, they feel so much better that they want to keep on.”
To help people get started, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has released a new set of physical activity guidelines (www.health.gov/PAGuidelines). Be Active Your Way: A Guide for Adults offers additional tips and tactics for incorporating exercise into daily living.
Hormones & Stress: Women’s Issues
Aside from the diet and exercise recommendations that affect everyone, women face some unique issues when it comes to heart health. Menopause triggers hormonal changes that can affect cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Though controlling menopause symptoms with hormone therapy was once thought to protect the heart, new research indicates that this treatment may increase cardiovascular risk.
“The findings from the Women’s Health Initiative study seemed to show that hormone therapy increased the risk of blood clots and heart attacks, but now we know that the findings may have been skewed somewhat by the population studied, which included post-menopausal women who were given hormone therapy,” explains Lynne Seacord, MD, a cardiologist with Washington University Physicians.
Current medical opinions tend to support the idea that menopausal women who take low doses of hormone therapy for short periods of time can experience relief from symptoms without compromising their heart health, Seacord says. “A lot of research is underway on the issue of hormone therapy in menopausal women,” she says. “For now, women who have debilitating symptoms should talk with their doctors about their options.”
Seacord also points out that stress is linked to cardiovascular risk, noting that more heart attacks occur in the morning when stress hormones are at their highest daily levels. “Women who are taking care of children and also aging relatives may experience a lot of stress,” she says. “It’s very important to take time for yourself. And that ‘me time’ could involve exercise, which is a terrific stress-reliever.”
There’s no way around it. To help prevent heart disease, we need to make healthy choices every day. When you next sit down with your calendar, adding events and activities that you consider important, remember to plan time for the most important thing in your life - your own health.