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Heart Disease Knows No Gender

Though many women don't know it, it's their biggest health threat

SATURDAY, Dec. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Few women would dare to skip regular mammograms after the age of 50. But far too many fail to heed an even bigger health threat.

They shouldn't.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. In sheer numbers, more women than men will die of heart disease this year.

But many women don't think of themselves at risk of heart disease, doctors say. A recent heart association survey found that only 8 percent of women identified heart disease and stroke as their biggest health threat.

"The key thing women don't understand is that half of them will die of cardiovascular disease or stroke, and many of them will die prematurely," says Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, past president of the American Heart Association. "They worry about cancer, but many more will die of cardiovascular disease."

The lack of knowledge could be one reason why so many women aren't taking measures to protect themselves. An American Heart Association survey of 521 women found that 75 percent aren't following recommended guidelines for diet and exercise.

The survey revealed that only 28 percent of women eat a diet low in fat and cholesterol. And only 31 percent exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes or more.

Before menopause, a woman's hormones provide some protection from heart disease, says Dr. Naveed Malik, a cardiologist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans. After menopause, "the incidence of cardiovascular disease rises very rapidly and catches up with men," Malik says.

"Even we as physicians need to be more vigilant about the presence of cardiovascular disease in women," he says.

Still, women are by no means immune from heart disease before they hit menopause. Research has shown artery-clogging plaque buildups can begin in the teens and 20s, setting the stage for heart attacks in middle age.

"There are women in their 40s and 50s having heart attacks in this country every day," Robertson says.

Major risk factors for heart disease include smoking, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity, Malik says.

And obesity rates are soaring. About 60 percent of Americans are overweight. Of those, about 30 percent are obese, according to recent statistics.

Because a sedentary lifestyle puts you at risk for obesity and other ailments, a key component of warding off heart disease is exercise, Robertson says.

Earlier this year, the federal government issued new exercise guidelines that recommend adults and children spend at least an hour a day in moderately intense physical activity to maintain maximum cardiovascular health.

However, any exercise is better than not exercising at all, Robertson says: "We worry that if people see it as an overwhelming job, they might not start."

To increase awareness about the risk of heart disease in women, the American Heart Association has launched a campaign called "Simple Solutions." The aim is to teach women small steps they can incorporate into their lives to decrease their risk of heart disease.

"Women are very busy," Robertson says. "They're taking care of everyone else, and they often forget to take care of themselves. We wanted to come up with simple, practical steps they could do every day to lower their risk."

Here are 10 suggested steps:

  • 1. Buy the deepest color of ground beef you can find. The darker the red, the less fat it contains.
  • 2. Do your own yard work. Mow your lawn. Rake the leaves or grass. It's great exercise for your arms.
  • 3. When eating at a restaurant, split an entree. Portions at restaurants tend to be large. Before eating a pizza, blot up the oil with a napkin.
  • 4. Take the stairs whenever you can. Each flight burns 10 calories.
  • 5. Don't use creamy dressings or croutons on your salad. If you must have something crunchy on it, walnuts can be a good alternative because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • 6. When talking on the cordless phone, stretch your arms and legs or do arm curls with a can of food in your hand.
  • 7. Keep high-calorie, high-fat foods out of sight in your pantry. Put raw vegetables and fruits in the front of the refrigerator so you see them first.
  • 8. Play with your children or pet. Play chase with the dog or take him for a walk. Take the kids to a park for a game of tag or push them on the swings. Badminton, volleyball and swimming are fun things you can do together.
  • 9. Eat crunchy, healthy snacks such as carrots, celery or rice cakes instead of chips, cookies and soda.
  • 10. Walk as much as you can. Park you car at the far end of the lot, and walk to the grocery store or the drycleaners. When you take your kids to soccer practice, spend the time walking around the field while your kids play.

What To Do

For more information on "Simple Solutions" and maintaining a healthy heart, visit the American Heart Association or WomenHeart.

SOURCES: Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., past president, American Heart Association; Naveed Malik, M.D., cardiologist, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, New Orleans
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