Women also need to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle

women walking
A minimum of a half hour of physical activity every day of the week is another habit your heart will appreciate. Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women.

Posted June 27, 2012

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, many will still answer breast cancer. Too many women still fail to realize that cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women.

Dr. Villablanca is a cardiologist, Frances Lazda Endowed Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine, founder and director of the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program and a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health’s The Heart Truth® campaign.

For the past 25 years, more women have died of heart disease each year than men. In fact, cardiovascular disease kills more women than all cancer deaths combined!

Women today are well-educated to follow health screening guidelines regarding getting regular mammograms and PAP smears. However, women need to also be aware of what increases their risk of heart disease and follow guidelines to take steps to reduce those risks. I urge all women to take positive action for your heart. Over 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors.

Where can you start?

Know your numbers

Dr. Villablanca © UC Regents

Watch a video about Dr. Amparo Villablanca's "know your numbers" initiative.

Video in English
Video en Español 

Know your numbers, including for cholesterol, blood sugar, weight,waist and blood pressure. Even 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 no smoking, heart healthy diet, physical activity, and medications, if necessary.

Below are the recommendations for women:

  • Total cholesterol < 200 mg/dL
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol < 100 mg/dL
  • HDL (protective) cholesterol > 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides (blood fat) < 150 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure  < 120/80 mmHg
  • BMI (body mass index, a measure of your weight dependent on your height) < 25
  • Waist < 35 inches
  • Blood sugar < 100 mg/dL

Regain a healthier weight

Achieve and maintain a heart healthy 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. It also emphasizes a diet high in grains, low in sodium, low in fat, and containing at least two servings of fish weekly. It is an excellent heart-healthy diet to live by -- you can get more tips at MyPlate.gov.

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. Be sure to also include strength and resistance exercises into your routine. 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

About us

The UC Davis Women's Cardiovascular Medicine Program offers state-of-the-art cardiovascular care for women, education services and studies on women's heart health issues. For information, visit www.womenshearthealth.ucdavis.edu.

Know the symptoms of a heart attack. 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, don’t miss a beat and make the 9-1-1 call for emergency medical services that could save your life  (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.