We’re entering Valentine’s Day season, so let’s have a heart to heart about one of the biggest issues facing middle-age women: cardiovascular disease. In her book The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Menopause, Dr. Holly Thacker notes that heart disease is one of the most serious risks that women inherit with age and menopause. She notes that the heart “can suffer tremendously from estrogen deficiency….”
A new study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine, which analyzed the lifetime risks for cardiovascular disease using data from 257,384 people, echoes Thacker’s concern. In this National Institutes of Health-supported study, researchers found that middle-aged adults who have one or more elevated risk factors (such as high blood pressure) have a much greater chance of having a major cardiovascular event (such as a heart attack or stroke) during their lifetime than people who have optimal levels of risk factors.
This study was the first to look simultaneously at multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease across age, sex, race, and birth generation.
The researchers looked at 50 years of data from 18 studies of black and white populations in the United States. They measured cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, and smoking in women and men at ages 45, 55, 65 and 75 years of age.
The researchers found that women who had at least two major risk factors were three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than women who had one or none of these risk factors. Furthermore, women who were 45 years of age who had two or more risk factors had a 30.7% chance of having a major cardiovascular event by the age of 80. However, women who had one or no risk factors had a 4.1% chance of having a major cardiovascular disease event by the age of 80. Also, African Americans matched the white participants’ lifetime prognosis when they shared similar risk factor profiles.
"These data have important implications for prevention,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the study’s lead researcher. “We need to get more serious about promoting healthy lifestyles in children and young adults, since even mild elevations in risk factors by middle age seem to have profound effects on the remaining lifetime risks for CVD."
So how can you lower your risk? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has created a Million Hearts initiative designed to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes over a five-year period. The initiative recommends the following:
- Remember your ABCS, which are aspirin (A) therapy, blood (B) pressure control, cholesterol (C) management and smoking (S) cessation.
- Work with your doctor to identify and lower your risk factors.
- Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. This diet includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and low-sodium foods and excludes food with high amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. Also, cooking at home more often can help you eat a more heart-healthy diet. The Million Heart website recommends limiting sauces, mixes and instant products, such as flavored rice and ready-made pasta.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activities on most days of the week to control obesity (which can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke), high blood pressure and cholesterol. If your schedule is crazy, try to break down the exercise into three 10-minute intervals that you can do each day.
- Quit smoking and try to avoid secondhand smoke. The Million Hearts initiative website warns that cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk for heart disease.
Taking proactive steps can really make a difference in your heart health. And those are important steps to take.