6 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Heart Health

Your risk for heart disease and stroke might be higher than you think.

heart health symptomsphoto credit: shutterstock

1. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women

According to Heart & Stroke, heart disease and stroke claims the life of a woman in Canada every 17 seconds. Not only are women under-aware of the risks of heart disease and stroke, but the research also focuses largely on men. Heart & Stroke reports that two-thirds of heart disease and stroke research focuses on men. “Historically, heart disease and stroke were viewed as men’s diseases,” says Dr. Paula Harvey, Director, Cardiovascular Research Program at Women’s College Hospital. “Research was based on the incorrect assumption that what worked for a man would work for a woman, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. We are now learning how women’s physiology and hormonal changes put them at risk for heart disease ands stroke in ways that are different than men.”

Heart & Stroke has launched a national awareness campaign to close the deadly gap in women’s heart health and brain health. “We’re using #TimeToSeeRed to draw attention to the problem, so we can work together — public, health professionals, health systems and governments — to close the gap in women’s health,” says Yves Savoie, CEO, Heart & Stroke. Visit heartandstroke.ca/women for more information. 

2. 50-80 % of heart disease is preventable

“It’s never too late, or too early, to make a lifestyle change,” says Dr. Beth Abramson, a cardiologist at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. “Much of heart disease can be avoided by controlling risk factors.” This includes having your blood pressure assessed by a medical professional. “People think they can feel their own blood pressure, but this isn’t the case,” says Dr. Abramson. Speak to your doctor if you have any blood-pressure concerns. Even if you don’t have any apparent risk factors, it’s important to know the warning signs of heart attacks and stroke.

You can also make lifestyle changes to lower your risk. Eat a healthy diet, limit your alcohol consumption, don’t smoke, take steps to lower your cholesterol and manage your weight, especially if you carry extra pounds around your belly, which can put you at an even higher risk for heart disease. Aim to exercise at least three times a week, Abramson recommends, and try to reduce your stress levels.

3. Pregnancy and childbirth can increase a woman’s chance of having a stroke

Most pregnant women in Canada are closely monitored for blood pressure changes and other pregnancy-related health risks. Strokes associated with pregnancy and childbirth are usually the result of an underlying problem, like a pre-existing blood vessel malformation or eclampsia. If you have or suspect you have either of these conditions, speak to your doctor about it before you conceived or immediately after finding out you’re pregnant. The risk of a pregnancy-related stroke is greatest in the six weeks following childbirth, so don’t skip post-natal appointments. Gestational diabetes can also contribute to heart-health issues during pregnancy, so get assessed for that, too.

4. Hormonal birth control can increase some women’s risk for heart disease

Contraceptives like the Pill, the patch and the NuvaRing are generally safe for most women. But those who smoke while using hormonal contraceptives put themselves at high risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and blood clots. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about safest form of birth control for you. And get help to kick that habit.

Related: This Common Type of Stress Can Give You a Heart Attack

5. Women’s risk for heart disease rises after menopause

During the transition to menopause, which usually occurs around the age of 51, the ovaries stop the producing the heart-protecting hormone estrogen. Also, menopausal women may experience an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels, and a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol). Reduced estrogen levels can also increase body fat around the waist. “It’s the way the body handles fat across the belly that’s the problem,” says Dr. Abramson. “Belly fat is associated with more inflammation and higher cholesterol.”

Hormone changes can also have harmful effects on the way blood clots, and affect the way the body handles sugar, which can lead to diabetes. Hormone therapy is a potential solution to this for some women, but speak to your doctor and weigh the risks and benefits. Post-menopausal women also need to manage lifestyle risk factors. “As always, it’s important to get into the right habits,” says Dr. Abramson. “Exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet following Canada’s Food Guide, and limit alcohol consumption.”

Related: 7 Signs You Might Be Headed for a Heart Attack

6. Excessive alcohol consumption can affect your chances of getting heart disease

Drinking too much of any kind of alcohol raises blood pressure and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. You may be surprised to learn that excessive alcohol consumption for women is classified as anything more than two drinks a day, and anything more than nine drinks per week. “There have been studies that show that moderate alcohol consumption can have a slight protective effect against heart disease,” says Dr. Abramson. “But most of those studies have been done on people who are already fit, and we don’t recommend starting to drink if you don’t already.”

The bottom line is that it’s best to drink in moderation, or not at all. There are other ways to get the antioxidant benefits certain types of alcohol may provide. If you do choose to drink now and then, try these antioxidant-rich cocktails —and always toast to your good heart health!

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