Think heart disease is something that only affects overweight, old men? Think again. According to the Health Foundation, cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer of women globally. And nearly two-thirds of the deaths from heart attacks in women occur among those who have no history of chest pain.
While age and family history are both significant risk factors, lifestyle can play a big part too. “Heart disease is 80% preventable,” says Dr Linda Worrall-Carter, CEO and founder of Her Heart. “There are many lifestyle changes we can do to improve our risk.” Here are some lifestyle tweaks that can help reduce your risk.
1. Get moving
Exercising for 20-30 minutes a day can slash your risk of developing heart disease in half, research shows. The benefits of exercise are clear. It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and helps maintain healthy weight, as well as improving mental health, your mood and wellbeing, plus relieving symptoms of depression too.
2. Eat a heart-healthy diet
Being overweight or obese plays a significant role in heart health because of its link with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and developing diabetes. Keep your weight and cholesterol
in check by eating fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, lean protein and healthy fats. Oily fish, such as salmon, is good for heart health as it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, which increase good (HDL) cholesterol in the blood and prevent clotting.
Dr Worrall-Carter adds there’s also growing research into the effects of alcohol on heart health. Red wine has some benefits, but excessive drinking causes weight gain and an increase in blood pressure and fatty lipids. Limit yourself to two standard drinks per day.
3. Get enough quality sleep
Poor sleep quality over a prolonged period has been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure (a major risk factor for heart disease). You might think you can live on a few hours’ kip, but Dr Worrall-Carter advises you should be getting seven to eight. Ensure your sleep environment is cool and dark, and that you take time to relax before you hit the pillow. “It’s important to unplug from all technology at least an hour before bed,” she says.
4. Quit smoking
Everyone knows smoking is extremely bad for your health, but for those who still struggle to quit cigarettes, this may help – within a year, you’ll halve your risk of a heart attack! For women especially, the combination of smoking and birth control pills can dramatically increase your risk of developing heart disease. “If women smoke, the single most beneficial thing they can do for their heart health is to stop,” tells Dr Worrall-Carter. “Smokers are two to four times at greater risk of developing heart disease than non-smokers.”
A high level of the stress hormone cortisol is linked to increased blood pressure, which is a risk factor in heart disease. The key is to recognise symptoms of stress in yourself and take steps
to manage it. Make time to exercise and spend time with people who are positive – sometimes just having a good laugh can give your heart a positive boost. It can lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in arteries and increase good cholesterol. Make it a priority to spend time doing things that relax you every day.
6. Get regular check-ups
Knowing your own personal risk is a huge step to helping to avoid heart disease. Ask for a heart health check next time you visit the doctor. High blood pressure and cholesterol are two major risk factors for heart disease, so one of the best preventive measures you can take is to get these checked regularly. Speak to your GP and make sure to schedule a heart health check at the same time as your breast check or pap smear.
Don't ignore these symptoms
Since 40% of women don’t experience any form of chest pain during a heart attack, look out for these common symptoms:
- Jaw pain
- Unusual shoulder, neck or back pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Light headedness, dizziness or nausea
- Difficulty breathing, breathlessness or feeling sweaty
- Racing heart