Women and heart health: we worry about a lot of things like cancer, weight, mood, energy . . . but our risks of heart disease rarely make the list. We think it’s a men’s disease. This attitude puts us at much greater risk of dying from it, because we’re not aware we should be doing everything we can to prevent it.
Studies have shown that you can reduce the risk of heart disease by following a heart-healthy lifestyle. That includes eating well, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, taking a heart health supplement and reducing stress.
Risk Factors We Can Control
- Smoking: Women who smoke have two to three times the risk of heart disease; exposure to second hand smoke is also a risk factor.
- Inactivity: Not getting enough physical activity (couch potato lifestyle doubles your risk.)
- Stress: Increases in blood pressure, cholesterol, and the formation of clots are all associated with both stress and heart disease.
- Carrying excess weight: Being overweight increases blood pressure, cholesterol, and the risk of diabetes—all factors that also increase your risk of heart disease.
- Poor dietary choices: Studies indicate that a high intake of saturated and trans fats or a low intake of fibre can increase the risk of heart disease.
- Excess alcohol consumption: Drinking too much alcohol (especially binge drinking) raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, some research has found that a moderate intake (one drink per day) can reduce the risk.
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure significantly increases the risk of heart disease.
- High cholesterol: High cholesterol doubles a
- Diabetes: Diabetes is an even bigger risk for heart disease in women than in men.
Risk Factors Beyond Our Control
- Age: Advanced age increases risk. For women, the risk of heart disease increases rapidly after age 55.
- Family history: Having a parent or grandparent with heart disease early in life (before age 65) could indicate a genetic predisposition.
- Ethnic background: Those of South Asian, Aboriginal/First Nations, Inuit, or black-African descent are at increased risk for some types of heart disease.
Emerging Risk Factors
In recent years, research has identified other factors that may increase yourrisk of heart disease:
- Homocysteine: Homocysteine is an amino acid made by the body during normal metabolism. Studies suggest that elevated homocysteine increases the risk of heart disease by causing damage to the lining of the arteries and promoting clots. Homocysteine metabolism is controlled by vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid. A deficiency of these nutrients can increase levels; likewise, supplementing with these nutrients can lower homocysteine levels.
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP): CRP is a marker of inflammation, which is a factor in the development of atherosclerosis. High CRP levels are correlated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. If you are at risk of heart disease your doctor may check your CRP levels.
The Power of Prevention
If you have heart disease or are at risk, consider the following specific recommendations:
- Have your blood pressure and cholesterol regularly checked, and discuss your results with your doctor.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes colourful fruits and vegetables, soy foods, whole grains, healthy fats (fish), and adequate protein.
- Swap green tea for coffee (green tea contains antioxidants that offers benefits for the heart).
- Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy body weight.
- Manage your stress levels with regular exercise, breathing techniques, and meditation.
- Add fish or a fish oil COQ10 supplement formulated for women and heart health specifically to your routine.
- Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke. If you are currently a smoker, talk to your pharmacist about smoking cessation aids. There are many products and programs available today to help you kick the habit.
The Best Vitamins for the Heart
In recent years, research has identified other factors that may increase the risk of heart disease. Homocysteine is an amino acid made by the body during normal metabolism. Studies suggest that elevated homocysteine increases the risk of heart disease by causing damage to the lining of the arteries and promoting clots. The amount of homocysteine in the blood is regulated by three vitamins for the heart: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 (4). A deficiency of these vitamins can increase levels; likewise, supplementing with these vitamins for the heart can lower homocysteine levels.
Vitamin B6 deficiency can result from a poor-quality diet. Only during the later stages of a deficiency are symptoms seen when the intake of proper nutrients has been very low for some time. Signs of vitamin B6 deficiency include skin inflammation, a sore tongue, depression, confusion and convulsions. Vitamin B6 is found in a wide variety of foods, including cereals, beans, meat, poultry, fish, and some fruits (bananas) and vegetables (potatoes). A quality vitamin for the heart would include 50mg of B6 once or twice a day.
Vitamin B-12 another vitamin for the heart is needed to synthesize hemoglobin and to help manufacture healthy red blood cells. Signs of a B12 deficiency include fatigue, weakness, nausea, constipation, flatulence, loss of appetite and weight loss. Deficiency can also lead to numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Additional symptoms of B12 deficiency include difficulty in maintaining balance, depression, confusion, poor memory and soreness of the mouth or tongue. Vegetarians and vegans who do not eat meat, fish, eggs, milk or milk products are consuming no vitamin B12 and so may have a high risk of developing a deficiency, although the minimum daily requirement is small at 1 mcg.
Folate, a member of the B family is another one of the vitamins for the heart that is used along with vitamin B6 and B12 to regulate the amount of homocysteine in the blood. Folate is found in leafy greens such as spinach, dried beans and peas, cereals and grain products, and some fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that folic-acid supplements are best taken with vitamins B6, B12 and C. The recommended dosage is between 400–800 mcg daily.
Although these vitamins for the heart lower homocysteine levels, studies have not found that this translates into a reduced risk of heart disease. They should however be taken as part of healthy diet for overall health.
Sherry Torkos responds: The answer to this depends on your individual situation. Everyone who has had a heart attack or stroke should take low-dose (baby) Aspirin for life because it can reduce the risk of deadly recurrence by up to 25 per cent. But in regards to women and heart health, those who have no history of cardiovascular disease should not routinely take Aspirin as a preventive tool because there is no evidence the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks.
Many doctors routinely tell their patients to start taking a baby Aspirin daily at age 50 to avoid heart problems. It is also a common recommendation for post-menopausal women and diabetics. However, according to the most recent guidelines by the Canadian Cardiovascular Society there is no good evidence that this is beneficial. And there is clear evidence that regular use of aspirin can cause serious stomach problems such as bleeding.
Also, if you do take Aspirin, avoid taking other analgesics or anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, because they interfere with Aspirin’s ability to prevent clotting.