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Published on January 26, 2022

During American Heart Month, take steps to protect your heart

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Colleen McCurry, MD

About 90 percent of women have risk factors for heart disease, yet many of them are unaware that it is the greatest threat to their health.

“Women's symptoms of heart disease can be subtle compared to men's, and their response to them is often delayed,” said Colleen McCurry, MD, Family Medicine, Gundersen Boscobel. “Women may feel tired or easily fatigued, but they often make excuses to themselves about what is happening and dismiss the signs.”

There are anatomical distinctions as well. Women tend to develop diffuse plaque that builds up evenly in their arteries, which are smaller than a man's.

“This is significant because it makes it harder for doctors to see a blockage in a woman's arteries,” Dr. McCurry said. “The challenge is compounded because women typically wait longer to go to the emergency room when they are having a heart attack, and they are less likely to present with chest pain and EKG changes. As a result, physicians may be slower to recognize heart attacks in women.”

Lifestyle changes can reduce a woman's risk of heart disease by up to 80 percent. Incremental improvements make a huge difference.

The American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 outlines a steps women can take to live a healthier lifestyle and reduce the risk of heart disease:

  1. Get active. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity such as brisk walking five times a week. Losing as few as five to 10 pounds can have tremendous benefits for your heart.
  2. Eat better. Instead of trying out a succession of fad diets, substitute vegetables and fruits for less healthy items in your diet. Try to use fiber-rich whole-grain breads and cereals and fat-free or low-fat dairy items. Immediately start to reduce soda, candy and sugary desserts.
  3. Lose weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your health. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you eat. Learning to balance healthy eating and physical activity can help you lose weight more easily and keep it off.
  4. Control cholesterol. Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body (which makes all the cholesterol you need) and food made from animals. Eating smart, adding color and moving more can all help lower your cholesterol.
  5. Manage blood pressure. High blood pressure increases the strain on your heart and arteries. For women who act as the head of household while maintaining a career, stress can drive unhealthy blood pressure. Quiet reflection for 15 minutes a day can help reduce stress.
  6. Lower blood sugar. Blood glucose (sugar) is an important fuel for your body. It comes from the food you eat, so it’s important to eat smart. Cut out added sugars by checking nutrition facts labels and ingredients, limiting sweets and sugary beverages, choosing simple foods over heavily processed ones and rinsing canned fruits if they are in syrup. And move more, because moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity can also help your body respond to insulin.
  7. Quit smoking. Cigarette smoking damages your entire circulatory system and increases your risk for heart disease. Experts advise doing whatever you can to quit smoking.
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