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What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women?

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Learn about the 5 most common risks and how you can help prevent heart disease

Posted by Deborah Crabbe, MD, FACC, FAHA

Many of my patients think breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women. But in fact, it’s heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will die of heart disease — and women of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities are affected.

Heart disease includes a wide range of conditions that affect the cardiovascular system as a whole. These include but are not limited to:

Prevention of heart disease starts with knowing your individual risk for developing heart disease. But many women may not realize they’re at risk and still think of heart disease as a condition that mainly affects men. That’s why it’s so important for me to talk about these risks with all women. The more we know, the more power we have to protect our health.

The vast majority of women are at risk for heart disease: 90% of women have at least one risk factor that raises their chances for heart disease.

Having one of the following risk factors can increase your chances of heart disease. Women who have more than one risk factor are at an even higher risk:

Risk factor #1: Type 2 diabetes

Compared to men who have type 2 diabetes, women living with type 2 diabetes have double the chance of developing heart disease. Women living with diabetes are also more prone to deadly heart attacks, partly because those with diabetes are more likely to have additional health problems that can affect their hearts — such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

What to do:

  • Work with your doctor to help keep your blood sugar level within a healthy range.
  • Take your diabetes medications as prescribed.
  • Follow a heart-healthy, diabetes-friendly diet. Focus on fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, and eat less sugar and salt. Here’s a guide for grocery shopping when you have diabetes.
  • You can also sign up for Temple’s Diabetes Program. These classes will teach you how to take control of your diabetes.

Risk factor #2: Smoking

Lung cancer often comes to mind as the biggest health threat of smoking. But smoking harms the heart, too. People who smoke are up to 4 times more likely to have heart disease compared to those who don’t smoke.

Smoking raises blood pressure, damages blood vessels, and can make it harder to be active — all risk factors for heart disease. Women who smoke and take birth control pills may be at an even higher risk for heart problems.

What to do:

  • If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Talk with your doctor if you’re struggling. They can recommend resources to help you make this important lifestyle change.
  • Specialists in Temple’s Smoking Cessation Program have also helped many people learn how to stop smoking.

Did you know that your risk of heart disease and stroke may be cut in half 1 year after you stop smoking? And that risk continues to decline in as short as 3 years after stopping, making your risk only slightly higher than someone who doesn’t smoke.

Risk factor #3: Not getting enough exercise

Physical inactivity can raise cholesterol and blood pressure, and make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. But becoming more active can reduce a woman’s risk for heart disease by up to 40%.

What to do:

  • Work toward getting 150 minutes of exercise a week, or about 30 minutes on most days.
  • Sometimes patients tell me, “I don’t want to join a gym,” and I tell them that they don’t have to. I encourage them to think about other ways to fit some exercise into their life. Activities like dancing, gardening or walking the dog all count as exercise.
  • Ask someone to join you in your goal to be more active. Having someone to exercise with helps keep you motivated to stick with an exercise routine.

Risk factor #4: Reaching menopause

Most women reach menopause in their early 50s. That’s when levels of estrogen start to drop and the risk of heart disease begins to rise.

Other risk factors for heart disease — such as high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels — may also occur during menopause.

What to do:

  • Women who smoke often reach menopause earlier than women who don’t smoke. But when menopause happens, women need to be even more vigilant about keeping up healthy habits like exercising, choosing healthy foods, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Every woman should know her risk for heart disease. Calculate your risk using the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease Risk Assessment.

Risk factor #5: Preeclampsia during pregnancy

This condition is marked by dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy. The high blood pressure associated with preeclampsia typically goes away after a woman gives birth, but it raises her risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and heart failure later in life.

Women with a history of preeclampsia should receive screening for these conditions after pregnancy, and should receive cardiovascular risk reduction interventions as appropriate.

What to do:

  • If you had a pregnancy with preeclampsia, let your doctor know. You may need to keep an even closer watch on your heart health.

Get expert care for your heart

To take control of your heart health, consider seeing a specialist. My colleagues and I in the Women’s Heart Disease Program help women understand their risks and reduce their chances of developing a problem. We also help women who have heart disease manage the condition.

Women with heart disease have been shown to benefit from heart health education and peer support. If you’re a woman at risk for or with established heart disease, come join us for our Women with Heart Disease Support Group.

You can request an appointment with a heart specialist or call us at 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536).

Deborah Crabbe, MD, FACC, FAHA

Dr. Crabbe is a Professor of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and a cardiologist at the Temple Heart and Vascular Institute. She has clinical interests in heart disease in women, general cardiology, echocardiography, and racial/ethnic disparities in cardiovascular disease. In 2016, she received the “Women of Heart” award from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Heart Association in recognition of her health advocacy work with minority women.

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