Women’s Heart Health Part 2: Keys to Preventing Heart Disease and Managing Heart Health for Women

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Michelle Pebole, MA; Doctoral Student, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Joni Williams, MD, MPH; Assistant Professor of Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin

Rose E. Constantino, PhD, JD, RN, FACFE, FAAN; Associate Professor of Health and Community Systems, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing

Alyssa Vela, PhD; Assistant Professor Surgery and Psychiatry, Northwestern Medicine

Heart disease is the number one killer of women. Because of the gender-specific risks and symptoms, attention to preventing heart disease and managing women’s heart hearth across the lifespan is important. Symptoms of heart disease or a heart attack may be more subtle for women than for men. For example, many women experience chest pain at the onset of a heart attack, but other typical heart attack symptoms are far less common among women. Instead, women commonly experience fatigue, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or dizziness, nausea or vomiting, weakness, or a cold sweat. Understanding these gender differences in heart disease symptoms can help increase recognition, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in women. To learn more about heart health throughout the woman’s lifespan, read Women’s Heart Health: Part 1.

Women also have an incredible amount of power over their own health and can prevent heart disease and manage heart health by practicing healthy behaviors. We have put together recommendations and tips for preventing heart disease in women:

1. Diet: Following a healthy diet is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease. While nutrition guidelines often vary, some foods are well understood to help you to live a healthy life and prevent chronic diseases. Here are five key recommendations for a heart-healthy diet:

  • Eat at least 2 servings of fruit and 2.5 servings of vegetables every day: This will improve the amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals in your diet. Especially heart-healthy fruits and vegetables include citrus, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli). At least half of your plate should include vegetables!
  • Eat more whole grains and protein-rich foods: Brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-wheat bread are good sources of fiber and other nutrients. Fish, eggs, nuts, lean meat, poultry, and beans are protein-rich and have healthier fats that are beneficial for health.
  • Limit salt, added sugars, and processed foods: This is key to improve and maintain healthy blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and promote healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes: Pay attention to the amount of food on your plate. Chew slowly and take more bites to practice mindful eating.
  • Moderate alcohol use: If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to 1 drink per day.

2. Exercise: Being physically active is important for maintaining good heart health and treating heart disease. Exercise can strengthen heart muscles, help maintain a healthy weight, prevent other health conditions that strain your heart (i.e. high blood pressure). Here are five effective methods to help you become more active:

  • Start slow: Doing too much too soon can be overwhelming and even cause injury. What small steps can you take to improve your habits?
  • Find Support: Tell someone your goals and encourage each other!
  • Find something you enjoy: Enjoyable activities will help you to stick to your workout goals. Maybe you prefer to walk alone, or join a group exercise class such as kickboxing, yoga, or weightlifting.
  • Plan your routine: Try your best to stick to your scheduled exercise. Identify things that may get in the way. Having a friend for accountability is helpful here.
  • Set realistic goals: Track your progress and reward yourself for achieving your goals.

3. Sleep: Good quality sleep plays a vital role in how the body functions. Sleep is important for fighting off illness, improving your mood, helping you think, and keeping you active. Nearly 30% of adults get less than the recommended 7 hours of nightly sleep. Here are a few key steps to improve and maintain good sleep:

  • Establish a routine: Go to bed and wake up at the same time seven days a week. Your body will recognize the pattern and get into a rhythm of falling asleep and waking up more easily.
  • Create a comfortable environment for sleep: Keep the bedroom at a cool, comfortable temperature. Schedule time to wind down for 30 minutes prior to bedtime. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. Minimize exposure to bright lights. Reduce noise and distractions.
  • Avoid long naps: Naps that last longer than 30 minutes can cause you to be less alert and reduce your ability to think clearly.
  • Avoid nighttime stimulants: Minimize heavy meals, limit vigorous exercise, and avoid smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or consuming caffeine close to bedtime to reduce interruptions in sleep.

4. Stress Management: Balancing competing obligations in life can be difficult and the associated stress can negatively impact your health. For many people, stress may result in poor health behaviors, such as over-eating or smoking cigarettes, which further increases risk for heart disease. Additionally, for many people, making time for stress management can create more stress. Choose something that feels right for you and doesn’t add to an already busy or stressful schedule. This might mean changing your mindset about an activity. Consider the following options to manage stress and improve your overall health:/p>

  • Take time off: Set boundaries and take time for yourself each day to engage in activities that help you feel your best. This can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes per day.
  • Do happy things: Find things that you enjoy and make time for them. It can be something easy and low-cost, such as taking a walk or calling a friend. 
  • Exercise: Every time you are active, your body releases endorphins, which make you feel happy.
  • Seek Social Support: Set time aside to connect with others. Reach out to a friend or loved one or join a group.

By focusing on factors within their control, women can be empowered to manage their health and live their best lives. Setting small, realistic goals and taking active steps can help to support the healthy behaviors that are key for heart health and overall well-being.

Many women have difficulty managing some or all of the key factors on their own. If this is the case for you, consider talking to a professional. Different specialists are available to help with diet, exercise, and sleep. A psychologist or counselor can help you overcome barriers to making healthy changes or learn strategies to better manage stress.

Also read Women’s Heart Health: Part 3, which will help guide women’s conversations about heart heath with their doctor and includes a list of questions to ask.

References:

Benjamin, E.J., Muntner, P., Alonso, A. Bittencourt, M.S., Callaway, C.W., Carson, A.P., … & Virani, S.S. (2019). Heart disease and stroke statistics – 2019 update: A report from the American Heart Association. Circulation,139, 56-528.

Heron, M. (2018). Death: Leading Causes for 2016. National Vital Statistics Report, 67(6), 1-76.

Kochanek, K.D., Xu, J.Q., Murphy, S.L., Minino, A.M., & Kung, H.C. (2011). Deaths: Final data for 2019. National Vital Statistics Report,60(3), 1-116.

Mosca, L., Hammond, G., Mochari-Greenberger, H., Towfighi, A., & Albert, M.A. (2013). Fifteen-year trends in awareness of heart disease in women: Results of a 2012 American Heart Association National Survey. Circulation, 127, 1254-1263.

National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2020). Coronary heart disease. Retrieved from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/coronary-heart-disease


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