Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there’s still a misconception that heart disease is a “man’s disease.” February is Heart Month, a perfect time to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health and learn more about your risk for heart disease. Also according to the CDC, 50 percent of Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking). But there are other conditions, some of which you might not even be aware of, that are affecting your heart health.
“Although you may not realize it now, there are certain things you are doing that can have long-term effects on your heart and health down the road,” Dr. David Greuner, cardiovascular surgeon and managing director and cofounder NYC Surgical Associates, tells SheKnows. “It’s never too late — or too early — to make adjustments to your lifestyle so you can live a longer, healthier life.”
We talked to a panel of medical experts to tell us the most common heart health mistakes women make. Are you committing any of them?
Not putting your health first
In case you need a reminder — your health matters!
“Women are always taking care of others — parents, kids and husbands — [and] often they ignore chest pain if they have it and don’t seek medical help,” Dr. Michele Kalt, a cardiologist at Southern California Hospital at Culver City, tells SheKnows.
“This is a no-brainer; smoking does nothing good for your health,” says Greuner. “It’s linked to an assortment of fatal health issues, including heart disease, cancer and stroke.”
According to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a physician and the medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, smoking increases risk for heart attack and stroke by accelerating the buildup of cholesterol in the walls of our arteries. “Smoking lowers the HDL — good cholesterol — causes spasm or constriction of our arteries and promotes blood clotting. It also raises risk for lung disease, lung cancer and colon cancer,” she tells SheKnows.
Lack of sleep
According to Goldberg, sleeping fewer than six hours a night raises risk for heart disease since lack of sleep increases risk of high blood pressure and belly fat through the release of stress hormones.
Dr. Dipti Itchhaporia, a cardiologist at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, tells SheKnows that post-menopause, women experience more disruptive sleep patterns. “I recommend less stimulants such as caffeine after 12 p.m. and enough exercise to ensure your body is worked out and tired by the end of the day,” she adds. “Some postmenopausal women might benefit from hormonal patches to help with perimenopausal symptoms that can aid in better sleep.”
All our experts agree: Physical activity is key when it comes to preventing heart disease.
So, why aren’t more women exercising? Women tend to have disruptive daily schedules that don’t allow for regular exercise, says Itchhaporia. As a result, they’re not as focused on themselves, but rather their families. “Women need actual exercise, not just moving around the house/running errands,” she adds.
Greuner recommends at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise daily, which, he says, can be broken up into three 10-minute sessions. “Little things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator can also make a big impact.”
Kalt adds that exercise should be a priority, both for physical and mental wellness. “One is a much better caretaker if they take the time to recharge. Then there is more to give to others,” she says.
Not eating healthily
You are what you eat. If you want to lower your risk of heart disease, it’s crucial to maintain a healthy weight and focus on eating whole and nutritious foods.
“Weight extremes increase your risk for heart disease. Instead of partaking in fad diets, make adjustments to your overall lifestyle so you can maintain a healthy weight,” Greuner recommends.
Similarly, Kalt says that taking the time to plan your healthy eating will work wonders. “In order to make an impact in dieting and eating healthy, time needs to be spent ahead of time to plan our healthy meals and snacks,” she says. “So when you are hungry, you can grab a healthy alternative.”
Little knowledge of cholesterol & blood pressure
Let’s be honest. When was the last time you got your cholesterol and blood pressure checked?
“The best way to prevent heart disease is to make sure all cardiac risks are diminished, and this includes making sure your blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels are optimal,” says Kalt.
Another thing to remember it that post-menopause, your cardiovascular risk can change, Itchhaporia notes. “Many women who once had good cholesterol or blood pressure may be surprised to find it has changed,” she explains.
We’re living more stressful lives than ever now, and it’s literally killing us.
“Women do not take enough time for themselves,” says Itchhaporia. “It is important they increase me time to reduce stress and optimize heart health.”
On top of that, prioritize and take time each day to meditate in order to keep your stress in check, Greuner suggests.
Too much alcohol
Reaching for that glass of vino might be your go-to on Friday night (or any night really), but for the sake of your heart, you might want to reconsider just how much alcohol you’re consuming on a regular basis.
“Drinking too much alcohol leads to an array of health issues, including cancer, pancreatitis, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke and high blood pressure,” says Greuner.
He recommends finding healthier ways to deal with your stress, like exercise and meditation.
“Many of the women patients I see delay seeing a doctor or delay going to the ER with heart symptoms,” Goldberg explains. “The longer you delay care for heart attack symptoms, the more you are at risk for losing heart muscle function.”
Remember: If you have sudden tightness or pressure in your chest radiating to the arm, neck or jaw (please note it can be anywhere in the chest) or the sudden onset of shortness of breath or fainting, go to the ER immediately.
Perhaps the best thing you can do for your heart health is to stay informed. Ask your health care provider questions about heart health and ask what changes you might need to make in your life. And always put your health first. Because you deserve it.
For more information about what other women across the country are doing during February’s heart month, as well as other heart health advice for women, please visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s #Our Hearts campaign page.