Heart disease is the top killer of women. The majority of women between the ages of 40 and 60 have at least one risk factor for the disease. But many do not realize it. They also don’t know about the sometimes subtle signals of a heart attack.
Why the disconnect? In general, heart disease has been perceived as an older person’s disease that need not concern women until menopause. For years, women also thought hormone therapy (HT) would protect them from heart trouble. But heart attacks can and do occur at any age. Plus, we now know that HT may actually raise the risk for heart disease.
A common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which affects the blood vessels of your heart. Heart disease also includes atherosclerosis, or the thickening and hardening of your arteries, as well as stroke, peripheral vascular disease, and heart failure. The groundwork for heart disease can start in your 20s.
Risk factors for heart disease can be divided into those that suggest a major risk and those that lead to an increased risk. Major risk factors are:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Chronic kidney disease
- Obesity or being overweight
- Physical inactivity
Factors that could lead to an increased risk include stress and excessive alcohol consumption. For women, that means more than 1 drink a day.
Starting at age 20, women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and should have this checked at least every 5 years and possibly more often if you have increased risk factors such as family history of heart attacks at a young age (younger than 50 years of age). One red flag is a high level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and a low level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which clears arteries.
Knowing your risk factors is vital. The more risk factors you have and the worse they are the greater your risk for heart disease. Once you know your risk factors, you can learn whether you’re at high, intermediate, or low risk for heart disease. Then you can set goals and work with your health care provider to reach them.