Heart Health

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in U.S. women. Many things can affect whether or not you develop heart disease. The good news is that you can control some of these things

Risk factors are medical conditions, habits, family history and other facts that make you more likely to develop heart diseases. The more risk factors you have, the higher the chance you may develop heart disease.

  • Bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels: These are types of fat in your blood and other parts of your body. Your body needs small amounts of them to work, but too much can be a problem. Bad cholesterol and triglycerides can make your arteries, which provide blood to your heart, more narrow. Tiny pieces of cholesterol and triglycerides can cling to the inside of arteries and cause bumps called “plaques”. Eventually, bad cholesterol and triglycerides can clog the artery and damage the heart.
  • High blood pressure (“hypertension”): Blood pressure is the force your blood makes against the walls of your arteries, which deliver blood to the rest of your body. High blood pressure can damage your arteries over time. To lower your risk of heart disease, your blood pressure should be less than 120 /80.
  • Smoking: Smoking causes about half of all heart attacks in women. If you smoke while taking birth control pills, you are at even higher risk.
  • Diabetes: Uncontrolled blood sugar can also damage the walls of the arteries. This risk is higher in women than men.
  • Being overweight or obese: The more overweight you are, the higher your risk of heart disease. Being overweight can also raise your chances of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. To lower your risk, your body mass index (BMI) should be between 18.5 and 24.9. BMI is a number that indicates if your weight is low, normal or high for your height. BMI takes into account your height. For example, different women can have the same weight but, depending on how tall they are, one could be normal and the other one obese. [LINK to NIH BMI calculator].
  • Lack of physical activity: Like being overweight, lack of physical activity raises your heart disease risk even if you have no other risk factors.
  • Drinking alcohol: Too much alcohol can your raise blood pressure and triglyceride levels and can also damage your heart. However, “moderate” drinkers – women who drink no more than one drink a day – are less likely to develop heart disease than those who drink heavily. For an explanation of how to determine what 1 drink is, please visit: http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/whatcountsdrink/whatsastandarddrink.asp
  • Sleep apnea: This happens when you momentarily stop breathing in your sleep. Obese people are more likely to have sleep apnea. It usually happens because the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes and blocks air flowing to the lungs. This lowers the oxygen level in the blood, which makes the heart work harder and often leads to high blood pressure. People with sleep apnea often snore loudly. They can be very tired during the day.

Metabolic syndrome. Having metabolic syndrome doubles your risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. You have it if:

  • Your waist measures more than 35 inches;
  • Your triglyceride level is more than 150 mg/dL;
  • Your HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) level is less than 50 mg/dL;
  • Your blood pressure is equal to or greater than 130/85;


  • Your blood glucose (sugar) level after fasting for 8 hours is more than 110 mg/dL.

You can control these risk factors by changing some things in your daily life. Your doctor might also suggest medicine to help control some risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Risk Factors You Cannot Control:

  • Age: Women tend to develop heart disease 10 to 15 years later than men. This is because until a woman goes through menopause, her ovaries make estrogen. Estrogen protects women against plaque buildup. At menopause the ovaries stop making estrogen and a woman’s risk for heart disease goes up. By age 70, women have about the same risk for heart disease as men of the same age. As we get older, our arteries get stiffer and thicker and our systolic blood pressure (the top number) often goes up. These changes can worsen plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries.
  • Family history of early heart disease: Women whose father or brother developed heart disease before age 55 are at higher risk, as well as women with a mother or sister who developed heart disease before 65.
  • Race and ethnicity: African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure. Research suggests that some racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to develop heart disease. It is not clear why this occurs.