By Jean Hailes health writer Rhonda Garad
If I were to ask you what health condition women are most affected by, what would your response be? Breast cancer? Ovarian cancer?
The answer may surprise you. Women are affected by heart disease more than any other condition – across all ages, not just in our older years. About 29 women die every day from heart disease in Australia. In fact, we are four times more likely to die of a heart attack than from breast cancer. Unfortunately, very few of us are fully aware of this. But the good news is that 90 per cent of our heart disease risk can be prevented.
Know your numbers
One of the biggest concerns with heart disease and women is that we are often unaware we have it, which makes knowing your numbers so important. It is important that you know numbers such as:
- Blood pressure – have it taken every time you visit your doctor
- Cholesterol levels (yearly blood test) – know your good cholesterol levels and your bad cholesterol levels
- Weight – aim to keep within a healthy weight range
Elevated blood pressure
A clear indication of heart problems is high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also known as the “silent killer” because it often has no warning signs or symptoms and you may not know you have it.
Blood pressure fluctuates, but consistently high blood pressure can damage artery walls, the heart and other organs, as well as increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Have your blood pressure checked regularly by your doctor and discuss your individual blood pressure target. This is especially important if you have diabetes or high cholesterol.
For most people, a blood pressure reading of 120 (highest number) over 80 (lowest number) is within the normal range. If you numbers are higher than this, discuss with your doctor.
Lifestyle habits such as smoking, inactivity, being overweight and unhealthy eating contribute to high blood pressure.
There are times in our lives when our risk of heart disease increases. One of those times is while we are taking the oral contraceptive pill (OCP). If you choose to smoke while using the OCP, you significantly increase your risk of stroke and heart disease.
Another critical time is during and post-menopause. Oestrogen, a hormone that women have in relatively higher levels during their reproductive years, begins to decline around the time of menopause. Oestrogen is protective against heart disease, so once we reach menopause our risk of heart disease becomes similar to men’s. This fact makes it all the more important to be vigilant about heart health in the post-menopause phase.
What you can do
Making changes to your lifestyle can have a big impact on the health of your heart and blood pressure. In fact, good lifestyle habits are the most effective way to prevent heart disease and ensure you blood pressure is within normal limits.
- Move often throughout the day (stand up at least every 20 minutes and walk for two minutes)
- Exercise on most days – walking, swimming or any activity that increases your heart rate
- Eat a diet low in saturated fats such as those found in red meat. Limit red meat to two to three times per week
- Eat a colourful diet that is rich in antioxidants
- Have your blood pressure taken at least yearly, but ideally every time you visit your doctor
- Be smoke-free
- Limit your salt intake by reading food labels
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
- Enjoy healthy eating. Choose mainly plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and legumes (dried peas, dried beans and lentils), and grain-based foods (preferably wholegrain) such as bread, pasta, noodles and rice