Women can take seven steps to improve their heart health

Special to the Herald-LeaderFebruary 12, 2012 

Dr. Susan Smyth


The leading cause of death among women in Kentucky is not cancer, but heart disease. And, for the last 27 years, deaths from cardiovascular disease in women have outnumbered those in men. According to the American Heart Association, in 2008, cardiovascular disease claimed the lives of 419,370 U.S. women. That's an average of almost one death every minute. In Kentucky, more than 4,800 women die each year from heart disease, placing women here at higher risk than other parts of the country.

What places a woman at high risk? High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise and family history of heart disease. Cancer survivors and women who have had a high-risk pregnancy might develop heart problems later in life. Lifestyle also plays a major role in heart disease. A healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce anyone's chances for developing heart disease. Even small changes can have a major impact.

The American Heart Association suggests "Life's Simple 7."

1. Don't smoke.

2. Maintain a healthy weight.

3. Engage in regular physical activity.

4. Eat a healthy diet.

5. Manage blood pressure.

6. Take charge of cholesterol.

7. Keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels.

As little as 30 minutes a day of exercise improves heart health. One hour of exercise can lengthen lifespan by two hours. Easy ways to increase activity: Do vigorous housework; garden or work outdoors; take short, brisk walks; park farther away in the lot; use stairs instead of the elevator; and dance!

Healthful eating is one of the easiest lifestyle changes. Avoid eating out, and place a priority on preparing meals at home — that's a healthy habit the entire family can enjoy. Make fruits and vegetables predominant in your diet (five colorful servings every day), switch to whole-grain bread and cereal, eat fish two to three times a week, snack on unsalted nuts, and substitute beans and legumes for animal protein. Avoid fried foods, foods high in sodium or saturated fat, processed foods and meats, salty snack foods and sodas, both regular and diet. Even diet soda can be harmful to cardiovascular health.

Eating too much salt raises blood pressure. A study released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nine out of 10 Americans exceed substantially the daily limit of sodium (2,300 milligrams), and those with high blood pressure should limit intake to 1,500 milligrams.

Finally, treating high blood pressure and cholesterol are essential to preventing heart disease.

Medicines, reducing sodium intake and losing weight can help keep blood pressure in check.

Likewise, new findings confirm that statin therapy, used to lower cholesterol, reduces deaths from heart disease in women as well as men.

Knowing your risk for heart disease, making small lifestyle changes and following the American Heart Association "Life's Simple 7" steps will ensure a longer, happier and healthier life for you and your family.

Dr. Susan Smyth is chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Gill Heart Institute, University of Kentucky, and an attending physician at the Lexington VA Medical Center.

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