Love your heart

• Heart disease is the number 1 killer of women, more deadly than all forms of cancer combined
• 1 in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year; 1 in 3 of heart disease
• More women than men die from heart disease each year

These sobering statistics from The Heart Foundation raise the questions: “Am I paying enough attention to my heart’s health?” And, “Where do I begin?” 

What are the best ways for a woman to keep her heart healthy?

1. Quit smoking. Mark O’Shaughnessy, MD, a cardiologist with Parkview Physicians Group, urged: “The absolute number one thing to prevent heart disease is tobacco cessation. If you are a smoker, STOP (it is never too late). If you are not a smoker, NEVER start.”

2. Exercise frequently. Why? Doing so keeps body weight healthy and strengthens the cardiovascular system. Aleksandra Popovski, pharmacy intern under pharmacist Gregg Russell at Fort Wayne Custom RX, said, “Studies show that women who exercised 55 minutes a day five days a week lost more weight and kept it off compared to women who exercised less frequently or for shorter periods of time.”

3. Know your risk factors. “This is critically important: cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose and family history,” said Dr. O’Shaughnessy. “You cannot be an active participant in your health if you do not know your numbers.” Check out the U.S. Surgeon General’s Family Health History site Blood work and family history could signal early warning signs—share that information with your doctor as soon as possible.

What about diet?

The American Heart Association recommends a diet high in Omega 3-fatty acids with two servings per week of fish like mackerel, lake trout, albacore tuna and salmon.

Other essentials:
• Eat lots of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables (without sauces or added sugar)
• Avoid saturated and trans fats; use “good fats” like olive oil
• Fiber: beans or grains like oatmeal, barley and quinoa
• Limit sodium intake

Some studies suggest that drinking green tea and coffee (without added sugar or artificial sweetener) can decrease the risk of stroke. Popovski pointed out, “Theanine, the key ingredient in green tea, has also been associated with decreasing stress.”

Can stress or anxiety affect the heart?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy cautioned, “Stress is a controversial risk factor. The problem is how to measure it. We can measure blood pressure, glucose, etc., but an objective measure of stress is difficult. It’s subjective—what ‘stresses’ one person might be welcomed by another.”

If not specifically measurable, feeling ‘stressed out’ can certainly impact a healthy lifestyle—as anyone who has given in to ‘stress eating’ knows. Insomnia from worry can lead to low energy, making exercising or cooking healthy seem impossible. Are there stress-relief strategies that are particularly beneficial for women?

The American Heart Association suggests:

• Get enough sleep (at least seven hours per night)
• Exercise regularly
• Add deep-breathing exercises, meditation or yoga to your daily routine

Dr. O’Shaughnessy concurred, “Any stress relieving activities would be beneficial to overall health. Each individual should find the method best suited for her, depending on time, money and ease of practice.”

What signs should a women look for that might suggest a heart issue?

“Any recurrent symptom from the waist up should be evaluated,” encouraged Dr. O’Shaughnessy. “Classic angina is crushing mid-chest pain that radiates to the left arm and jaw, accompanied by shortness of breath, sweatiness and nausea. But less that 50 percent of women experience this, so ANY symptom that is recurring should be evaluated. Start with your primary care physician who can refer to a specialist if needed.”

Know your risk factors, eat healthy, exercise and don’t smoke. Your heart— and your loved ones—will thank you!

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