Getting Down to the Heart of the Matter: Women and Heart Disease

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Let’s face it; most of us know when breast cancer awareness month approaches. Lapels are adorned with pink ribbons; runners are eagerly registering for the 5K runs and professional football players are sporting everything from pink cleats to wrist bands. October is pink.

But February is red, not only for valentines and roses, but for something far more serious. February is National Heart Month, and for good reason. While many women fearthe diagnosis of breast cancer, the fact is that more women die of heart disease than any other sickness. Often mistakenly referred to as “the man’s disease,” heart disease causes one in three female deaths each year. That is one woman every minute.

Sherry Torkos, author of the book Saving Women’s Hearts, says most women don’t see the danger in heart disease. “They don’t think they are at risk, so they don’t get screened for heart disease and may be unaware of risks and early signs.” Torkos also notes that women often delay seeking treatment when symptoms occur; thus they are twice as likely as men to die after a heart attack.

How do we keep our heart healthy? While there are many risk factors associated with heart disease, Torkos takes a more positive approach as she shares the three best ways to keep our tickers in tip-top shape.

#1: Exercise regularly.
This is a simple yet powerful tool in the prevention of heart disease. Exercise benefits the heart in numerous ways. It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, improves blood flow, reduces the risk of stroke, improves body weight, reduces stress and improves glycemic control, which is important even for those who don’t have diabetes, as high blood sugar can damage the heart.

#2: Eat more heart-healthy superfoods.
Certain foods contain vital nutrients that can help fight heart disease. Torkos’ top five recommended foods are easy to add to a healthy diet.

Nuts: They contain many heart-healthy nutrients including beneficial fatty acids, magnesium, potassium and antioxidants as well as fiber and phytosterols, both of which help lower cholesterol.

Berries: These little fruits burst with flavor and contain potent antioxidants that are good for the heart and blood vessels. Including berries in the diet at least three times a week is also good for brain and skin health.

Healthy fats: Avocado, fish and olive oil are all good choices. The lesser-known palm fruit oil offers several heart healthy nutrients including fatty acids, beta-carotene, which gives it a glowing red color, and tocotrienols, a super-potent form of vitamin E. New research suggests that the tocotrienols can protect against stroke and keep the heart and brain healthy. Be sure to choose palm fruit oil from Malaysia, as it is grown sustainably and is known for exceptional quality. Palm fruit oil is heat stable and thus suitable for use in cooking and baking.

Oats: This fiber-rich superfood can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and can help keep arteries clear. Loaded with soluble fiber, oats can also slow digestion and improve glycemic control and satiety so you feel more full and you’re less likely to have hunger and cravings.

Green tea: One of the healthiest beverages you can drink for your heart, green tea lowers LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, lipid peroxides, which are free radicals that damage LDL cholesterol, and fibrinogen, a protein in the blood involved in blood clot formation.

#3: Reduce Stress
Anxiety can wreak havoc on our hearts. Stress raises blood pressure and cholesterol, triggers inflammation and increases the risk of blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke. Women today face stress from many forces, including being the primary caregivers for family, managing careers and fullfilling household responsibilities. Most women aren’t even aware of how stressed they are until it’s too late. Finding ways to positively deal with stress is essential. Exercise such as walking, stretching and yoga can be very beneficial. Other strategies include meditation, visualization and deep breathing exercises.

When it comes down to it, a healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward optimizing overall health and decreasing our risk for heart disease. While we may not be able to change genetics or age, we can take control of factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, lack of exercise, stress and poor eating habits. Even high cholesterol and blood pressure are largely manageable with basic lifestyle changes.

Heart disease awareness isn’t just about wearing red during the month of February; it’s more about making a difference. How do we pledge to keep our mothers, sisters and friends aware of heart risks? We talk about it. We make sure our friends and family get screened, and we take control of our own wellbeing. Whatever our age or current state of health, it’s never too late (or too early) to take steps to protect our heart. ■

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