As you probably already know, February is American Heart Month. It’s the time of year where efforts to raise awareness about the importance of taking care of your heart are front and center. And it’s important that we are much more aware of such aims because heart disease still is the No.1 cause of death in both men and women.
I reached out to Dr. Jennifer Mieres, medical director of the Center for Learning and Innovation, Associate Professor of Medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, Cardiologist at Northwell Health, and a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, to gain some insight into the ways in which heart disease can come about, and what we need to do to take care of our heart health.
What role does your age play in the likelihood of having heart disease?
While significant advances have been made in diagnosing and treating cardiovascular diseases, there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially for Black women.
“African-American women are at an increased risk for heart disease,” Dr. Mieres told us via email. “The latest statistics from the American Heart Association demonstrate that heart disease strikes early in African-American women with 48.3 percent over the age of 20 and older having cardiovascular disease, specifically heart disease, and stroke.”
Dr. Mieres also said that heart disease is more likely for Black women of a certain age, as age is an “unmodifiable risk factor.” The older we get, the more risks we face for cardiovascular issues.
“Heart disease generally presents itself in women 10 years later than in men,” Dr. Mieres said. “And menopause marks the time in a woman’s life when her risk for heart disease and stroke increases due to the biologic changes.”
She continued, “Menopause marks a time of increase in risk factors for heart disease in women as there is an increased prevalence of the following risk factors: Hypertension, decrease in HDL (good cholesterol), an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol), an increase in waist circumference, increase in triglycerides, higher prevalence of diabetes, less leisure time and physical activity, and a greater functional decline.”
How can you prevent heart disease?
According to Dr. Mieres, more that 80 percent of heart disease cases can be avoided.
“Women of all ages need to know their risk for heart disease, and begin simple lifestyle changes combined with medication as needed to control and decrease risk factors for heart disease.”
Changes you can make right now include being more active and choosing to move every day because exercise can decrease risk factors by controlling your blood pressure and increasing good cholesterol. Dr. Mieres also recommends increasing your intake in fruits, vegetables and having two servings of fatty fish per week, as well as decreasing your intake of sugar, salt, and processed goodies. An increase in sleep is recommended, as seven hours per night can help you control stress. And lastly, Dr. Mieres encourages us to “partner with your doctor and find a friend to help you on the journey to healthy heart living.”
What should women in their 20s, 30s, 40s & 50s consider to prevent it?
While the likelihood of having heart disease increases as you get older, we’re all at risk. Even the young adults. So what should we keep in mind now to keep our hearts in good shape later?
If you’re in your 20s, Dr. Mieres says you should “Evaluate your risk for heart disease with your doctor. Discuss your family history of heart disease, because a family history of heart disease places you at an increased risk, especially if your mother had heart disease before age 60 and your father had heart disease in his 40s.” She continues, “Check your baseline blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Begin to adopt a heart healthy lifestyle. Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke, choose to be active at least 40 mins three times a week, make your plate colorful with fruits and vegetables and avoid processed and fried food.”
If you’re in your 30s, Dr. Mieres believes you should “Make your heart health a priority and continue to build on the healthy habits from your 20s. Discuss your heart health with your doctor on your yearly visit.”
And as for your 40s and 50s, “Know your individual heart healthy numbers. Start a log book with your baseline numbers and risk factors for heart disease and this becomes your passport and reference for heart health through the decades.”
She continues, “As menopause approaches and your metabolic rate begins to decline, it is important that you check your blood pressure, weight, waist circumference, blood sugar, and begin to focus on daily exercise (walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, cycling) for at least 40 minutes most days of the week. Changing your level of activity is critical to maintaining an ideal body weight and waist circumference.”
How big of a role does stress play in heart disease and heart health in general?
Stressed? You need to dial it back. Remove the people and things from your space that are keeping your blood pressure high, because such anxiety plays a significant role in your heart health.
“Recent clinical research has shown that women who experience high stress and active jobs (for example, high demand, high control
and high strain), were at increased risk for heart disease,” Dr. Mieres said. “Chronic stress predisposes one to an increase in risk factors for heart disease, including hypertension, and an increase in cortisol levels, which damages the lining of the blood vessel, predisposing to heart disease and heart attacks.”
I know that was a lot to take in, but to sum up, get your health together. Back away from too many of your favorite sugary and salty snacks and try to color your diet with some vegetables and fruits. Exercise more, sleep more, see your doctor. Make the appropriate changes to look out for your heart health. And while we may have all heard this before, we’re clearly not applying it, since heart disease still is the leading cause of death in this country.