Female Heart Specialists Share Tips for Women's Heart Health

February is American Heart Month, and Friday, Feb. 5 has been named as National Go Red Day, a time to raise awareness of women’s heart health. Many women are unaware of their risk of heart disease, ways to lower the risk, and the symptoms that are of concern.

The leading female cardiovascular experts from The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York shared the following “Top 10 Things Women Need to Do to Protect Their Hearts”:

  1. Knowledge is Prevention, Know Your Numbers. Every woman needs to know her blood pressure, total cholesterol including good and bad cholesterol level, triglyceride level, glucose level and body mass index, according to Mount Sinai Heart experts. Starting at age 20 is an ideal time to start tracking these heart health indicators each year, or at least every five years for cholesterol.
  2. Eat and Snack Healthy Daily. For women, eating a healthy diet all year round is critical to preventing heart disease and maintaining your current heart health level if you already have heart disease. "Remember to have a few servings a day of colorful fruits and vegetables, incorporate fiber into your daily diet, increase fish consumption over red meat, and avoid foods that are high in saturated fats, sodium and sugar, and which are highly processed," said Beth Oliver, DNP, RN, Vice President of Clinical Operations for Mount Sinai Heart. "Also, drink plenty of water, and limit caffeinated beverages. For healthy snack choices, reach for two apples a day, proven to help lower bad cholesterol, a handful of pistachios, almonds or walnuts, or colorful heart-healthy snacks like blueberries, strawberries, and grapes."
  3. Exercise 30 Minutes Each Day. A key daily lifestyle ingredient to help women protect their hearts from heart disease is exercise. According to Mary Ann McLaughlin, MD, Medical Director of the Cardiac Health Program at Mount Sinai Heart, exercise is necessary to lower your risk of heart attacks and strokes, maintain your blood pressure and cholesterol, and also to prevent diabetes and obesity. "It is critical to maintain a normal BMI, which is between 18.5–24.9. More than 25 is overweight, and 30 or greater is obese," stressed Dr. McLaughlin. "Just 30 minutes a day of brisk walking can help keep your heart healthy; 75 minutes of intense exercise two days a week with strength-based exercises can also be ideal to keep heart disease at bay."
  4. Know Heart Attack Warning Signs and Don't Wait to Call 9-1-1. Each year 1.1 million Americans have a heart attack, including about 435,000 women. Sadly, heart attacks claim the lives of about 267,000 women each year. Most female heart attacks occur in post-menopausal women after age 50, but younger women can also experience a heart attack. "Women need to know the warning signs of a heart attack, and react quickly by calling 9-1-1," said Annapoorna Kini, MD, Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at The Mount Sinai Hospital. According to Dr. Kini, women need to be aware of the following key heart attack symptoms: shortness of breath at rest, uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or pain in your chest like you never felt before, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, a cold sweat or flu-like feeling, extreme fatigue, and pain in the arm, back, neck, or even jaw.
  5. Trim Your Waist to Below 35 Inches. Fat carried around the belly compromises your health. "Belly fat is more dangerous to your heart health than carrying excess fat on other parts of your body," according to Lori Croft, MD, Associate Professor of Cardiology at Mount Sinai. "In particular, belly fat is a major risk factor for heart disease.” If you are a woman with a waist circumference that is more than 35 inches, you are at higher risk of developing heart disease. "Other risk factors are having fasting blood triglycerides over 150 mg, or a low good cholesterol (HDL) count," said Dr. Croft. "The treatment options for reducing belly fat and preventing metabolic syndrome are simply exercise and diet."
  6. Don't Smoke. Smoking cigarettes is hazardous to your heart health, your heart's arteries, and your overall vascular system's health. That's why vascular medicine experts are urging the almost 17 percent of women who still smoke to not smoke cigarettes, or to kick the habit immediately by joining a smoking cessation program. "Smoking decreases the strength of your artery walls. In fact, smoking tobacco is the number one risk factor for women to develop atherosclerosis and vascular diseases such as dangerous aneurysms, carotid artery disease, or peripheral arterial disease, which is blockages in their arms and legs," said Ageliki G. Vouyouka, MD, Associate Professor of the Division of Vascular Surgery in the Department of Surgery at The Mount Sinai Hospital. "To lower your risk of developing vascular disease or stop it from progressing, don't smoke. Often, aneurysms have no signs or symptoms before they strike, and smoking can make them get larger and rupture."
  7. No More Than One Alcoholic Beverage Per Day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women (if you drink at all), whether it's a glass of wine, beer, a shot of alcohol, or a mixed cocktail drink. "Moderation is very important to preserve your overall heart health every day and throughout your lifetime," said Dr. McLaughlin. "Women who may be drinking more than the recommended one drink per day limit, or binge drinking on the weekends, really need to be aware of the potential health effects." Drinking excessively or binge drinking can increase your blood pressure, triglycerides (fats in your blood), increase your heart rate or cause dangerous heart rhythms, and can even lead to heart failure or cause a stroke. "Plus, even a light beer can have about 100 calories a pop, and wine has a great deal of complex sugars. Drinking excessively can lead to increased calorie consumption, unhealthy weight gain or even obesity,” said Dr. McLaughlin.
  8. Know Your Individual Risk Factors. Every woman should ask her family members about their history of heart disease or if it developed for their relatives at any early age. "If you have a family history of heart disease, tell your doctor since you'll need to pay extra attention to your family history as an individual risk factor," said Icilma Fergus, MD, Director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disparities at Mount Sinai Heart, who runs the Harlem Healthy Hearts program. "Also, if you are African American or Hispanic you should know that you are at higher risk for cardiovascular events and stroke than Caucasians.”
  9. Don't Ignore Shortness of Breath and Swelling in Your Legs. "Congestive heart failure is not just a male disease. It affects women often, too," according to Jill Kalman, MD, Director of the Cardiomyopathy Program at The Mount Sinai Hospital. Heart failure, affecting more than 2.4 million females, is when a person's heart is too weak to properly pump and circulate blood throughout their body. Its risk factors often include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, a past heart attack, heart infection or inflammation, heart valve disease, abnormal heart rhythms, congenital heart defects, obesity, diabetes, excessive alcohol use, or kidney disease. It is important for women to be aware of congestive heart failure signs and symptoms, which can be sudden or progress over time slowly as we age. According to Dr. Kalman, the warning signs of heart failure may include coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, trouble walking long distances, fluid retention in the lungs, swelling in the feet, ankles, and legs, and also an irregular heartbeat. "Women need to keep the symptoms of heart failure in mind and not ignore them. Heart failure symptoms can range from mild to severe, but a heart failure specialist can help manage your heart failure symptoms."
  10. Get screenings during pregnancy. “The screening benefits are extremely useful for the prevention of future clinical events and safety to both the fetus and the mother," said Roxana Mehran, MD, Director, Interventional Cardiovascular Research and Clinical Trials at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "Pregnancy is a fantastic time to engage women regarding their heart health, because when we become a mother that is when we begin perhaps to care most about ourselves. Once you give birth, it is also a great time to start a heart healthy screening regimen yearly and lifestyle changes. Begin a great diet and exercise program to not only lose the baby fat you have gained during your pregnancy, but also to be more health conscious about your cardiovascular health."

Adapted from news release from The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (www.mountsinai.org), a health system with a network of centers throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester and Long Island. Physicians are affiliated with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which is ranked among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institutes of Health funding and by U.S. News & World Report.

For More Information

Learn more about women’s heart health from the American Heart Association (www.goredforwomen.org), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/women/heart) and the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/hearttruth).