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A Woman's Guide to Beating Heart Disease

Surveys show that few women perceive heart disease as their greatest health threat. Unfortunately, it's the nation's number one killer, and women are its prime target. Over one-third of the women who die in the U.S. each year die of heart disease. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than breast cancer.

The risk of heart attack and stroke increases with age, especially after menopause. It is important to note, however, that atherosclerosis, or plaque build up in the arteries which can lead to heart and strokes, is a progressive disease that can begin as early as your teens and 20s. That's why it's important to start protecting yourself from heart disease early.

Check your risk

First, you should get your blood cholesterol and blood pressure checked. The higher either of them is, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. A cholesterol (lipoprotein) profile, a blood test done after a 9- to 12-hour fast, will measure the fats in your blood to indicate your levels of total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, and triglycerides, another form of fat in the blood.  Talk with your health care provider about your goals for total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL, as well as your target blood pressure

Normal blood pressure is 119/79 or lower. Pre-hypertension, which means it is likely that high blood pressure will develop in the future, is 120 to 139 for the top number and 80 to 89 for the lower number. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is 140/90 or higher.

But your cholesterol (lipoprotein) profile tells only part of the story. Your doctor will use your profile in combination with other data, such as your medical history and family history of heart disease, to assess your risk and determine whether to recommend cholesterol-lowering medication. Your doctor may advise you to make diet and lifestyle changes before prescribing medication.

For some women, heart disease is preventable by making lifestyle changes that can reduce their risk.

The following lifestyle changes can help women lower their risk for developing heart disease. 

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight increases blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, a condition in which your body can't use insulin to transport glucose into cells. Type 2 diabetes itself increases your risk for clogged arteries and heart attack.

By bringing your weight down to a healthy level, you'll lower your cholesterol level and blood pressure and make your body more sensitive to the effects of insulin. Even losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can make a difference.

A body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. To calculate your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 703. Divide the result by your height in inches, then divide that result by your height in inches again. But BMI is not the best measurement for everyone. Your health care provider can help you find out what is a healthy weight for you.

Quit smoking

Smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack than do nonsmokers. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can shrink coronary arteries, making it tough for blood to circulate.

Smoking can also cause the lining of blood vessels to become stickier, which makes blood clots more likely, which can cause stroke.

Get active

Get at least 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity 3 to 4 days each week. It can reduce your risk of heart disease by raising your HDLs and can also reduce LDLs.

Change your fats

Switch the fat in your diet from butter and other saturated fats to liquid margarine, tub margarine, olive oil, and canola oil. But use them sparingly because all fats are high in calories.

Each type of fat contains roughly 100 calories per tablespoon, and too much dietary fat of any kind can contribute to weight gain.

Also, limit full-fat dairy products, fatty meats, palm oil, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Check the label on convenience and other prepared foods, which tend to be high in fat.

Eat your fruits and veggies

Eat plenty of produce—a moderately active woman should eat at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily. Studies link diets high in fruits and vegetables with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for heart disease.

Fiber up

Oatmeal, whole-grain bread and other whole-grain foods are excellent sources of soluble fiber, which helps reduce LDL cholesterol. The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults have 6 to 9 ounces of grains per day. Half of this amount should be whole grains.

Drink alcohol in moderation

Women should limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day, the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits.

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