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Myth Vs. Reality: Women’s Heart Disease Risks

Photo credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Photo credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

We’ll admit it: as the leading cause of death in adults over 55, heart disease always seemed like a topic to tackle, well, later. But the reality is that a lot of heart disease is preventable or can be preemptively managed through education and screenings. In order to do that, however, women must establish healthy habits in their 20s, 30s and 40s before the heart disease has a chance to develop. For helpful strategies—like finding an exercise buddy and getting enough sleep—we chatted with Laura Immordino, MD, cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health’s Lankenau Heart Institute

I’d wager that many women under age 40 do not consider whether or not their habits are beneficial for their hearts. Why is it important for this age group to begin thinking about heart health?

Heart disease can happen at any age, so I would encourage women to consider their heart health at every age. Coronary artery disease, the number one cause of death in Americans, is the result of plaque build-up in your arteries. This plaque starts to deposit as early as the teenage years. Building healthy habits early in life is important to decrease your risk of developing heart disease in the future. Make your health a priority – eating healthy, staying active, reducing stress and getting a good night’s sleep are key in helping to prevent heart disease.

What are the cardiac health risks for the under 40 demographic?

Heart disease can occur at any age. Although less common, heart attacks can certainly occur before age 40, especially in patients with strong family histories or long-standing diabetes. Young women are more prone to coronary artery dissection – a tear in the wall of the artery that blocks off blood flow and can lead to a heart attack. Mitral valve prolapse is a common heart valve disorder in young women that can lead to valve leakiness. Palpitations and rapid heart beats, are other common conditions in this younger population. Sometimes the stress of pregnancy can cause heart disease (such as peripartum cardiomyopathy) or expose underlying heart disease that was previously asymptomatic.

Which heart-healthy habits can women begin/establish today? Are there any benchmarks you suggest to patients?

Developing heart healthy habits at an early age is important in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing heart disease. Quit smoking. Eat a heart healthy diet, rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and minimizing saturated fats and sodium. Stay active – at least 30 minutes of exercise 4-5 days/week. Keep your blood pressure and blood sugars well controlled. Reduce stress. Get a good night’s sleep. Most women are busy juggling family and career, and often do not take the time to take care of themselves. It is difficult to balance everything, but your health should always come first.

Do you have any tips for helping patients maintain these habits over time?

The key is to find foods and exercise that you enjoy. Cook your own food and experiment with different herbs and spices to replace salt. Substitute olive oil for butter. Switch from red meats to lean proteins like chicken and fish. People are often surprised at how much they can enjoy heart-healthy cooking. Similarly, I encourage my patients to find an exercise routine that they enjoy doing. You can take an exercise class, jog on the treadmill, walk outside, swim laps or use an exercise bike. Household cleaning, gardening and yard work can also count towards exercise. Finding a friend or group to exercise with can help keep you motivated. You can exercise with your children as well – it’s never too early to start developing these healthy habits.

What’s one unexpected habit or factor that increases the risk for heart disease?

Many women do not realize that gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during pregnancy are risk factors for developing these conditions and heart disease later in life. Also, autoimmune diseases, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, cause chronic inflammatory states, which in turn increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

What information should women under 40 acquire about their heart? If they’re concerned and would like to learn more about potential risks, what’s the next best step?

Talk to your doctor. Knowing your family history is extremely important. If you have parents or siblings that had heart disease at any early age (men less than 45 years old and women less than 55 years old), you should discuss your risk factors with your doctor and evaluate for any signs or symptoms of heart disease. Your doctor may perform tests to evaluate your current heart health. You cannot control your genes, so if you have a strong family history of heart disease it is important to minimize/eliminate as many of your other risk factors as possible. Take these steps now in order to prevent heart disease from developing in the first place.

For more information about women’s heart disease and cardiac health risks, visit Lankenau Heart Institute here.