Women also need to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle

Checkup on Health

health-care worker holding heart
Cardiovascular disease kills more than twice as many women as all cancer deaths combined. Just like men, women need to be aware of what increases their risk of heart disease and take steps to reduce those risks.

By Amparo C. Villablanca, M.D.  

Everyone knows that heart disease is mainly a man’s problem, right?


If you ask women what disease they fear, most will still answer breast cancer. Women today are well-educated to follow health screening guidelines regarding reproductive organs, such as getting regular mammograms and PAP smears.
Although awareness is improving, heart disease is indeed an equal-opportunity killer of both men and women.

Dr. Villablanca is a cardiologist, holder of the Frances Lazda Endowed Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine, and founder and director of the UC Davis Medical Center’s Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program. She is a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health’s “Heart Truth Campaign.”

Yet, too many women still fail to realize that cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women. For the past 25 years, more women have died of heart disease each year than men.

In fact, cardiovascular disease kills more than twice as many women as all cancer deaths combined!

Just like men, women need to be aware of what increases their risk of heart disease and take steps to reduce those risks. I urge women to use Valentine’s Day and February, which is National Heart Month, to take positive action for your heart. Over 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors.

Know your numbers

Know your numbers, including cholesterol, blood sugar, weight and blood pressure. Healthy individuals should be periodically screened for these factors that can help prevent or slow heart disease. If either are too high, your risk of heart disease is increased. Work with your doctor to bring them to normal levels through healthy lifestyles including diet and exercise, and medications, if necessary.

Below are the recommendations for women:

  • Total cholesterol < 200
  • Blood pressure (desirable) <120/80
  • BMI (body mass index, a measure of your weight dependent on your height) < 25
  • Waist < 35 inches
  • Blood sugar < 100

Regain a healthier weight

Achieve and maintain a normal weight with a low-fat diet and daily exercise. Experts are now looking to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet as a way to control high blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Even more than the food pyramid, this diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables, with seven to nine servings of both recommended daily. Like the pyramid, it is high in grains and low in fat. It is an excellent heart-healthy diet to live by.

A minimum of a half hour of physical activity every day of the week is another habit your heart will appreciate. While a daily trip to the gym is not for everyone, most people can fit a brisk walk or a session on a stationary bike into their daily schedule.
Even shorter intervals repeated throughout the day can provide heart benefit. Get in the habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away, and walking instead of driving when you can. Consult your physician first if you have been sedentary.

Quit smoking

Quit smoking. You’ll be surprised how many aids are now available to ease the difficult process of ending this addiction. Call 1-800-NOBUTTS, Talk to your doctor about nicotine replacement, other new medications and smoking cessation programs. Quitting smoking will reduce your risk of heart disease by as much as one half compared to smokers, after just one to two years!

Know the symptoms

Know the symptoms of heart disease. They are:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, particularly if with physical exertion or emotional stress
  • Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck, arms, between the shoulder blades or below the breast
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
  • Shortness of breath with physical activity
  • Any combination of the above symptoms, or the above symptoms without chest discomfort

Women often dismiss, deny or minimize their symptoms because they don’t perceive heart disease to be a threat. If any of these signs occur, make the 9-1-1 call for emergency medical services and get to a hospital at once (don’t drive yourself!). The chance of survival of a heart attack depends on early medical care.

The key to heart health is awareness, prevention, and early action . So use this Valentine’s Day to take wellness to heart!

Read more

The Heart Truth action plan (pdf)

The Heart Truth: If you have heart disease (pdf)