Heart Health at Every Age

285-Heart HealthBy the American Heart Association

In Your Twenties

Tia Timpson suffered a severe stroke at age 20. Cardiovascular disease and stroke can happen at any age, which is why it is essential to consider your cardiovascular health at every age. Start practicing heart-healthy habits in your twenties. Learn what you can do to prevent heart disease and stroke and stay heart-healthy early with the following advice.

Know your numbers.Know the numbers that have an impact on your cardiovascular health. This will make it easier to spot a possible change in the future. You should aim for a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25 kilograms per square meter (kg/m2) and a blood pressure reading of 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or less. Visit your doctor so that you know your numbers and take the Go Red Heart CheckUp (goredforwomen.org) to further assess your risk.

Check your family history. Ask your family if anyone has had heart disease, stroke, or any of the risk factors for those diseases. If the answer is yes, your chances of developing heart disease or stroke go up. It is important to learn this information now so that you can be aware of your risk. Make a point to talk with your doctor and see what you can do to decrease your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Don’t smoke—and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 200 to 400 percent. And women who smoke have a 25 percent higher risk of developing heart disease compared with men who smoke. Continuing to smoke throughout your life shaves 13 to 14 years off your lifespan. According to a US Surgeon General’s report, even nonsmokers are up to 30 percent more likely to develop heart disease or lung cancer from secondhand-smoke exposure.

The good news is that when you stop smoking, after just one year your risk of heart disease and stroke can be cut in half; it continues to decline until it is as low as a nonsmoker’s risk.

Drink only in moderation. Drinking heavily can cause a spike in your blood pressure and in some cases cause heart failure and lead to a stroke. Keep in mind that for women, moderate drinking is no more than one drink per day:

  • fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, scotch, vodka, or gin)
  • 1 fluid ounce of 100-proof spirits
  • 4 fluid ounces of wine
  • 12 fluid ounces of beer

Choose birth control carefully. Talk with your doctor about heart disease and stroke so that you can make a fully informed decision about birth control based on the risks and the benefits. Oral contraceptives along with other birth control options can cause an increase in blood pressure. If you can safely use an alternative method that does not put your health at risk, consider the advantages. Remember that cigarette smoking and oral birth control use can increase the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.

Eat balanced, healthy meals. Eating healthfully means balanced meals that provide plenty of nutrients through such foods as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as well as from proteins and dairy. Train your taste buds now to enjoy healthy foods to prevent excess weight gain that can increase your heart risk as you age. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends including the following amounts of these healthy foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables: at least 4.5 cups per day
  • Fish (preferably oily fish like salmon): at least two 3.5-ounce servings per week
  • Fiber-rich whole grains: at least three 1-ounce servings per day
  • Nuts, legumes, and seeds: at least four servings per week, opting for unsalted varieties whenever possible

It is also important to minimize sodium and saturated fats and avoid processed meats and sugary drinks to maintain a heart-healthy diet.

Exercise three to four times per week. Regular physical activity can improve your blood pressure and strengthen your heart. The AHA recommends 150 minutes at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. Walking, jogging, and workout routines that you can do at home or with friends—all can help you accomplish your physical fitness goals.

In Your Thirties

Juggling a family and a career has probably left you with little time to worry about yourself. Life is a balancing act, but your health should always come first. Now is the time to build heart-healthy habits. That means living a healthy lifestyle, including eating nutritious foods and getting lots of physical activity and a full night’s sleep. Studies have shown that if you can avoid the conditions that put you at risk for heart disease or stroke until you turn 50, chances are good that you may never develop it.

Make your health a priority. By now you should already know your risk of heart disease and stroke, including your family history, and should not smoke. Here are more things you should do to stay heart-healthy in your thirties.

Tame your stress. Long-term stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls. Understand what causes stress and learn helpful stress management techniques to reduce stress at work and at home to soothe your mind and body. These techniques include deepbreathing exercises, daily meditation, and finding time each day to do something you enjoy—whatever it takes to knock out stress.

Get enough sleep. Part of living a heart-healthy lifestyle means getting enough sleep. Why? Because the quality of your sleep can affect your cardiovascular health. The AHA recommends that adults get six to eight hours of sleep per night. Get into bed early to give yourself enough time to wind down after your day and to fall asleep faster and more soundly.

Choose birth control carefully. Talk with your doctor about the connection between birth control and heart disease/stroke so that you can make a fully informed decision based on the risks and the benefits. Many types of contraceptives, but especially oral contraceptives, can cause an increase in blood pressure. If you can safely use an alternative method that does not put your health at risk, consider the advantages. Remember that cigarette smoking and oral contraceptives can increase the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.

Eat balanced, healthy meals. Eating healthfully means balanced meals that provide plenty of nutrients through fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as well as from proteins and dairy. Remember that healthy foods prevent excess weight gain that can increase your heart risk as you age. The AHA recommends the following amounts of these healthy foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables: at least 4.5 cups per day
  • Fish (preferably oily fish like salmon): at least two 3.5-ounce  servings per week
  • Fiber-rich whole grains: at least three 1-ounce servings per day
  • Nuts, legumes, and seeds: at least four servings per week, opting for unsalted varieties whenever possible

It is important to continue minimizing sodium and saturated fats and avoiding processed meats and sugary drinks.

Exercise three to four times per week. Regular physical activity can improve your blood pressure and strengthen your heart. The AHA recommends 150 minutes at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. Walking, jogging, and workout routines that you can do at home or with friends—all can help you accomplish your physical fitness goals.

In Your Forties

Women are naturally caregivers. Ask any mom, spouse, or businesswoman; chances are they rarely put their own needs first. But what would happen if you were suddenly too sick to take care of your family or go to work? The bottom line is heart disease prevention. You have to make time and invest in your own health—for yourself and the people who depend on you.

Strive for more balance and less stress. Practice stress management techniques to reduce stress in your life every day. Take time to relax. Take 15 to 20 minutes per day to sit quietly, relax, breathe deeply, and think of a peaceful situation. During this time your body and mind can calm down and decompress. Worry less. The act of worrying can add a significant amount of stress to our lives. Try to take deep breaths, repeat positive affirmations, and adopt a positive outlook. Whatever it is, do something that can make the stress melt away.

Find physical activities you enjoy and stick with them. By age 40 some women have already made physical activity part of their daily life; but if you haven’t, it can seem like a chore. Between family and work, it may be difficult to make time for yourself, but it is critical for your health. Regular physical activity (40 minutes three to four times per week) can improve your blood pressure and levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) and strengthen your heart. Jogging and yoga are great activities to keep your heart healthy. You can also incorporate core strengthening exercises once a week to help prevent core weakening, which happens as we age.

Eat heart-healthy meals. Whenever you eat or are cooking for your family or yourself, strive to create meals that will help you maintain your heart health. They can still be delicious! Focus on including foods that are nutrient-dense, such as colorful, fiber-rich veggies and fruits; whole grains; lean meats such as skinless chicken and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids; and fat-free, 1 percent, or low-fat dairy products. These foods can give your heart the nutrients it needs as well as improve your cholesterol and blood pressure.

Get regular checkups. In addition to blood pressure checkups and other heart-health screenings, you should have your blood sugar level tested by the time you are 45. This first test serves as a baseline for future tests, which you should have every three years. Here are the tests you should have:

  • Weight and BMI
  • Waist circumference
  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Heart exam
  • Fasting blood glucose

Get enough sleep. The quality of your sleep can have an impact on your cardiovascular health. The AHA recommends that adults get six to eight hours per night. Are you getting enough? If not, try to adjust your schedule to accommodate a restful night’s sleep.

In Your Fifties

As women age, we lose some of our body’s natural defenses against heart disease and stroke. This can happen because of changes in hormones from menopause, which can affect cholesterol levels. Also, type 2 diabetes usually develops in women after age 45.

Monitor changes in your body and keep an open dialogue with your doctor. Hormonal changes that usually take place in our late forties and fifties make our health an even greater consideration as we age. Understand how menopause can affect your heart health and learn more about hormone therapies. Play and active role in your healthcare and work with your doctor to determine if you have any risk factors for heart disease or stroke. If  you are already at risk, ask your doctor how you can reduce it.

Get Heart Screenings. Regular heart screenings are important to maintaining a healthy heart. The AHA recommends getting your cholesterol checked every five years, your blood glucose levels checked every three years, your blood pressure checked at least every two years, your waist circumference checked as needed, and your BMI checked during every regular healthcare visit.

Know your numbers. Knowing the numbers that affect your heart health is an important step toward healthy living. Here is a quick overview of the numbers you need to know and your goals. Be sure to talk with your doctor to see how your current numbers measure up.

  • Total cholesterol: less than 180 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
  • Blood pressure: less than 120/80 mm Hg
  • BMI: less than 25 kg/m2
  • Fasting blood sugar: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Waist circumference: less than 35 inches

Watch what you eat. If you have extra room in your schedule, take the time to learn healthy-cooking tips and carefully plan healthy meals for yourself and your family. Choose foods low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars. Focus on foods that are nutrient-dense, such as colorful, fiber- rich veggies and fruits; whole grains; lean meats such as skinless chicken and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids; and fat-free, 1 percent, or low- fat dairy products. These foods can give your heart the nutrients it needs as well as improve your cholesterol and blood pressure.

Get Physical. If you have not been exercising, now is the time to start. Choose something that you enjoy and start slowly. Chances are, if you enjoy the type of exercise you engage in, you are more likely to stick with it. If you have been exercising for a while, change up your routine every now and then so you don’t get bored. Your goal is to exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes most—if not all—days of the week. Brisk walking and yoga are great activities to keep you hearthealthy. You can also incorporate exercises once a week to increase core strength and bone density, both of which diminish as we age.

In Your Sixties and Beyond

The more risk factors you can keep under control, the less likely you are to have a future heart attack or stroke. But as you get older, your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other heart-related numbers tend to rise.

Know your risk. Studies show that the number of women who have heart attacks increases dramatically, especially after menopause. The good news is that you have the power to reduce your risk; and if you do have a heart condition, there is plenty you can do to manage it. A great place to start is by taking the Go Red Heart CheckUp (goredforwomen.org). It takes only a few minutes, and along with your results you will receive a Personal Action Plan. Think of it as a customized guide to help you achieve your fitness and nutrition goals and live heart smart!

Know your numbers. Knowing the numbers that affect your heart health is still very important. Here is a quick overview of the numbers you need to know and your goals. Be sure to talk with your doctor to see how your current numbers measure up.

  • Total cholesterol: less than 180 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure: less than 120/80 mm Hg
  • BMI: less than 25 kg/m2
  • Fasting blood sugar: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Waist circumference: less than 35 inches

Keep moving. The older we get, the trickier exercise can be. But it is still very important to make physical activity a top priority in your life. If exercise is new to you, start slowly and talk with your doctor about the types of exercise or workouts that you can explore. If working out has never been your thing, that’s okay; walking— even several short, brisk walks for as little as 10 minutes throughout the day—can provide enough physical activity to keep your heart in shape. Your goal should be to get 40 minutes of exercise three to four times per week. Light weight lifting, water aerobics, and yoga are all great exercises for senior women.

Eat heart-healthy meals. Continue striving to eat meals that will help you maintain your heart health. Include nutrient-dense, natural foods that are colorful and fiber-rich, sticking with whole grains, lean meats and fish rich in omega-3s, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Try one of Go Red For Women’s Heart- healthy recipes and get more expert tips for eating right and maintaining a heart- healthy lifestyle.