In this week of hearts and flowers, it’s important not to overlook the most important heart of all–your own. The Valentines’ Day barrage is tough to miss: the jewelry ads, 1-800-LOVE-ROSES,  boxes of ever-more expensive chocolate guaranteed to make our loved ones feel special. You may have even shunted aside the high-profile Go Red campaign, whose smiling celebrities bring to mind all that pink-ribbons-for-your-breasts stuff last spring. But beyond the hype, the Go Red campaign–a brainchild of the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association–is onto something essential.  Your Valentine’s Day present to yourself could be to take some basic steps to protect yourself against the number one killer of women in this country.

Last fall’s testimonial by Katharine Johnson, who had two ‘silent’ heart attacks, reminded us how important it is to look at our family histories: “Any woman with a family history of heart disease needs to see a good cardiologist and have a full workup,” she wrote. “We need to take charge of our bodies and our health.” Next week Dr. Holly Andersen, WVFC cardiologist, will give us all some tips on how to recognize signs of trouble.

In the meantime, NIH and the American Heart Association remind us that we can do ourselves and our families a big favor by making a few key changes in our daily habits.

  • Stop smoking. Smoking dramatically increases the risk of illness and death from heart attack, stroke and other diseases. Constant exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke increases risk, too. The good news: when you stop smoking, just one year later your risk of heart disease and stroke can drop by as much as half, and it continues to decline.
  • Be smart about your weight. If you have too much body fat, especially in the waist area, you’re at higher risk for health problems. Try to reach a healthy weight and stay there. Losing one to two pounds or less per week is considered a healthy rate of weight loss, and even modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of body weight) can help lower your heart disease risk. But beware of fad diets, programs and products that promise rapid weight loss: if you have long way to go, consult your doctor or a nutritionist to help you get there.
  • Get physically active. In the past year, WVFC has already reported that exercise can help prevent dementia, reduce calcium loss and curb depression. So it’s probably no surprise that it helps reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, too.
Even if you don’t sign up to lift weights or take classes or use the treadmill, there are ways to get the 30 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by the American Heart Association to condition your heart and lungs.  Walking, gardening —it all counts, as long as it adds up to 30 minutes a day. Our favorite: Dancing around the house when no one’s looking. You can’t look nearly as silly as this guy, but you might end up feeling just as good.
  • Watch your blood pressure. “As a woman, you have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure if you are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight (for your height and build), have a family history of high blood pressure, or have reached the age of menopause,” says the AHA. “More than 73% of women ages 65 to 74 have high blood pressure.” Not only that, high blood pressure itself can increase the risk of heart failure. How to beat those odds? Work with your doctor and family on lifestyle changes and appropriate treatment.

  • Keep an eye on your cholesterol levels. As WVFC’s nutrionist Keri Gans told us last month, cholesterol often rises after menopause, even if it has traditionally been low. As Gans points out, we can make dietary changes to address this. And all that exercise can help get cholesterol levels down.
  • Ditto for blood sugar. Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease in women — but even if you have it, health professionals can help you stop diabetes from leading to disaster.

All this may feel daunting, especially to those of us who haven’t yet dug out from the latest blizzard. But in the dance of heart health even small steps count, and we can turn these changes into our own Valentine’s dance to the ones we love — including ourselves.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.