A little heart to heart from your sister in health

be lift move Aug 09, 2019

OK sisters, it’s time to get serious for a moment. Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women worldwide, and that more women lose their lives to heart disease every year than all cancers combined?[1] Women have different issues with heart disease than men, and our experiences with related illness are complex. Some tough love here: one of the biggest reasons that we are not more effectively reducing our risks, is that we seem to know less about heart disease than we think we do.

Women involved in a study at the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre (CWHHC) showed low levels of awareness about heart disease in general, symptoms unique to women, personal risk factors, and the major lifestyle risks. This tells me that we need to get some facts sorted. Here’s what you need to know:

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of premature death of women

-Women who have a heart attack are more likely to die when compared to men

-Half as many women than men attend cardiac rehab

-Because women tend to get heart disease and have heart attacks later in life, their conditions can be more complex to manage (especially if dealing with another health condition)

-Nine out of every ten women have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke

Risk factors

There are certain risk factors that you can’t control like age, family history and ethnicity, but there are others that you can reduce or eliminate to lessen your risk. Most women are aware of the role that diet, physical activity, and obesity play in the development of heart disease.

However, less women are aware of the more significant risks of smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In fact, these risk factors alone account for over half of all female heart attacks. This doesn’t mean that controlling the other risk factors isn’t important, it just means that a we really need to focus on quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, monitoring our cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure.

Healthy blood pressure for women over 50

As part of my work in the community, I have administered hundreds of blood pressure screenings for women over 50 and continue to be surprised by the number of women who have a high blood pressure reading (some of whom have had dangerously high numbers). Many of those women hadn’t checked their blood pressure regularly and some hadn’t had it checked in years. The numbers are truly staggering; almost 70% of women in their 60s and 70s (and by 75 a full 80%) of women have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease but is also the number one risk factor for stroke in women. If high blood pressure goes untreated for an extended period, it can also contribute to dementia, sexual problems, issues with vision, and kidney failure. 

Although medication remains the first line of defense against high blood pressure, regular exercise has been shown to have significant blood-pressure lowering effects. In fact, a recent study of collection of related research (called a meta-analysis) compared the effect of medication versus exercise for lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number in the reading that represents the pressure on your arteries during a contraction of the heart). The researchers found that in populations of people who had high systolic blood pressure, exercise appeared to be as effective as medication. Again, this doesn’t mean that exercise should replace medication, but it is a strong indicator for the role of regular exercise in controlling blood pressure overall.  

So now that we know the risks, what can we do? If you haven’t already, I urge you to consider making these changes: 

Three steps to change

Step 1: Get active

Ladies, I want you to look good in your jeans, but the real reason I have worked in physical activity promotion for almost 30 years is because I know that getting someone physically active can save their life. Being regularly physically active is one of the easiest ways to control our heart disease risk factors; if you’re active, you’re less likely to smoke, you can better control your blood pressure, you can help prevent (or better manage) diabetes, you can reduce centralized body fat (a risk), you can better manage blood lipid levels, and typically you will have a better quality diet. And this applies to all types of activity; studies have shown that both aerobic exercise and resistance training have a positive impact on heart health.

Step 2: Quit smoking

This one is so important, because continuing to smoke into your 50s and 60s and beyond adds in a totally unnecessary lifestyle risk. And please, don’t consider vaping as an alternative. Nicotine raises blood pressure, whether it’s delivered in a cigarette or in a vape. Besides, we really don’t know what the health impacts of vaping are yet, but most in the research community are cautioning against the use of vapes for any reason.

Step 3: Have your blood pressure checked

Like, this week. High blood pressure typically has no symptoms, so your body won’t let you know when your blood pressure is high. Please make sure to consult your doctor about your blood pressure (and your general heart health) – here are some reading numbers (as outlined by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation) for your reference:

Low risk: 120/80

Medium risk: 121-139/80-89

High risk: 140/90 and above

For women with diabetes: aim to keep blood pressure at or below 130/80

While you’re there, ask your doctor if you need to have your cholesterol checked. Write down the numbers and make sure that you follow them over time.

Taking care of your heart health will put you on the road to better aging. We also know that genetic and lifestyle risks are shared in families. Although you can’t change your genetics, you can change your lifestyle, and in turn act as a model to family members to help lower their risk.

Let’s all make a pledge to start taking better care of our heart health this week. Because you know what? We want you around for as long as possible. 

Your sister in health,

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