Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. It’s especially of concern for women, because their symptoms can be different from men’s, according to the American Heart Association.
For the first time, the American Heart Association released on Monday a statement specifically looking at the known science of women’s heart attacks.
Get some zzz’s: Most people need seven to eight hours a night to be well-rested. Sleep is not just downtime. It’s when your brain forms new pathways to help your memory.It’s when your heart and vascular system get a break, as your blood pressure and heart rate slow down. If you don’t sleep enough, your body constantly produces adrenaline and stress hormones to keep you awake. That means your blood pressure and heart rate doesn’t slow down as well, and that hurts your heart.
Your sleeping body also produces cytokines, which helps your immune system fight infections and chronic inflammation. Studies show poor sleep — anything less than six hours — hurts women more than it does men. Poor sleep can also exacerbate depression symptoms and depression increases your risk of heart attacks.
Get active (yes, including sex!): Any kind of exercise is essential for your heart, including sex, studies show. “My guess is the ‘get more sex (suggestion)’ was published by a man,” Dr. Deidre Mattina joked. But the Henry Ford Health System cardiologist admitted she has “written on my prescription pad that a patient should have more chocolate, sex and coffee.” All of those, in moderation, are good for stress relief, she said.
Mattina recommends you get at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise of any kind. Something as simple as walking does count. “As long as when I call you on the cell phone I can tell by your breathing that you are exercising,” Mattina said. “You can’t just be on a stroll window shopping.” Exercise lowers your blood pressure, helps you lose weight, increase your good cholesterol, reduces your bad cholesterol and increases your insulin sensitivity.
Less than half of all adults meet the minimum standard for exercise recommended by the government, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s just 2½ hours a week of moderate aerobic exercise like walking or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like jogging. Being overweight is hard on your heart. To lose weight, aim for 60 to 90 minutes of exercise a day, according to Dr. Carol Ma, a cardiologist at Florida Hospital in Orlando. “I tell my patients you should have a BMI that’s less than 25 and a waist that measures less than 35. That’s pretty specific, but that’s what you need for a healthy heart,” Ma said.
Raise a glass — and maybe a carrot — to your heart: A drink a day can keep the heart doctor away. If you drink (don’t start for a healthier heart), Mattina suggests one alcoholic beverage is enough (for the guys it’s two). Any more can stress your heart. A drink, by the way, is not an extra-large tumbler. It’s 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits. This is not just limited to red wine, which does have heart-healthy antioxidants.
Any alcoholic drink can increase levels of “good” cholesterol and limit artery damage. Alcohol can also help you relax. Eating healthy is also essential; watch refined sugar, salt and fat and eat lots of fruits and vegetables (in the 4.5 cup range).
Keep a close eye on salt. Most Americans eat too much and over 75% of it comes from packaged foods or from eating out. New dietary guidelines limit sugar, rethink cholesterol Ma also tells her patients to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids like what you find in fish. If you’re looking for suggestions, the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines give ideas for following the Mediterranean diet, which is particularly good for your heart.
Quit smoking: “This is No. 1 on my list,” Mattina said, and Ma agreed. Mattina said when she sees a young patient who has a heart attack, 90% admit to being smokers. It’s a little known fact, but most smokers die from heart disease long before they’ll get lung cancer. Smoking can create blood clots, decreases your levels of good cholesterol, makes it harder to exercise and can raise your blood pressure temporarily, none of which is good for your heart.
Don’t let your doctor be lonely: Get screened for heart disease. Regular screening can catch risks early and prevent future problems. The tests you need depend on your age, how much you exercise, your diet and family history (if your parents or siblings have heart problems, you’re at risk). The American Heart Association suggests everyone start monitoring their heart health by age 20. Your doctor should check your blood pressure, your weight and your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. You may want a more comprehensive check, which typically looks at your BMI, your waist circumference, the electrical activity in your heart and you’ll undergo a carotid intima-media thickness test.
Essentially, the two major arteries in your neck are screened for signs of hardening (an early sign of disease). A carotid and peripheral arterial disease screening looks for blockages in your legs, neck and arms. Your blood sugar is measured and your lipid profiles are tested, too.