by Sandy Tschosik, BN, RN

“One of the most beautiful things in the world is a woman’s heart. It is fragile yet strong. Delicate yet resilient. When a woman gives you her heart she gives her most prized possession. If you love, nurture, cherish and protect it, she’ll give you the world” – by Fawn Weaver.

Ladies, do you love and cherish your heart? Please do because heart disease does not discriminate. It is not just a “man’s” disease and being “young” doesn’t mean that it can’t happen to you. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease and stroke are a woman’s No. 1 and No. 3 killer. Heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases will kill more women than the next four leading causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. Therefore, it is important to know what puts you at risk.

A risk factor is something that increases your risk for developing health problems. Unfortunately, there are some risk factors that we cannot control such as our age, sex, race or family history. However, there are risks that we can manage or improve to reduce our chances of developing heart and vascular disease.

High blood pressure makes the heart work harder than normal, which can damage the heart and arteries over time, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. A normal blood pressure is a systolic (top number) less than 120 mm Hg and a diastolic (bottom number) less than 80 mm Hg. The AHA says that women are at risk of developing high blood pressure if they are 20 or more pounds overweight, have a family history of high blood pressure, take certain types of oral contraceptives, or are age 55 or older.  

Cholesterol is a wax-like substance that is found in your body. However, too much cholesterol can create plaque buildup on the walls of blood vessels, which can reduce blood flow or increase the risk of clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke. Current guidelines recommend a fasting cholesterol (lipid) test every 5 years starting at age 20. This blood test will give you information about your total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides. A total cholesterol level less than 200 mg/dL is desirable. An optimal LDL level is less than 100 mg/dL however, you should talk to your health care provider about what your LDL should be as this depends on how many risk factors you have for heart disease. An HDL level between 40 to 59 mg/dL is normal, but greater than 60 mg/dL further lowers your risk for heart disease.  A triglyceride level less than 150 mg/dL is considered normal.

Being overweight increases the risk of developing health problems. A waist size over 35 inches in women (or over 40 inches in men), and a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 25 increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of premature death.  Women who smoke increase their chances of developing heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, cancer and chronic lung diseases.

Physical inactivity and “sitting disease” also increases your risk. On average, American adults spend eight to nine hours a day sitting, which is causing serious health problems.  When we spend the majority of our waking hours sitting and being inactive, the heart, lungs, and muscles do not work as hard and thus we burn fewer calories.  The longer you sit, the less efficient the body’s systems become. The metabolism of fats and glucose gets disrupted which causes cholesterol and blood sugar levels to raise. Researchers feel that this change in metabolism is linked to the increase risk of disease.

Diabetes is a disease that causes elevated blood sugar. If blood sugar levels are too high and not properly managed, this can damage blood vessels which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness and kidney and nerve damage. Therefore, if you have diabetes, it is important to control your blood sugar and have regular checkups with your health care provider.  

Now that you familiar with these controllable risk factors here are some tips to help you lead a healthy heart lifestyle:

  1. Know your numbers. Keep a record of your blood pressure, weight, BMI, waist circumference, cholesterol and blood sugar. If you do not know what they are visit with your health care provider and get screened. Knowing and managing these lifesaving numbers is an important step in reducing your risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.
  2. Manage your weight. Even modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of body weight) can have big benefits and improve your numbers.
  3. Get moving. Exercise helps you reach and maintain a healthy weight, it lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and helps to prevent or control diabetes, which in turn reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease.  Exercise also helps reduce stress and improves memory and sleep. If okay with your medical provider, try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise, such as walking, each day and take breaks from prolonged sitting.
  4. Follow a heart healthy diet. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.  Aim for at least five servings per day. Avoid foods high in cholesterol and saturated and trans-fats, which can increase cholesterol levels.  Eat more whole grains which are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber helps to lower cholesterol which in turn reduces your risk of heart disease. Choose lean sources of protein such as fish, lean cuts of beef, skinless chicken and fat-free or low fat dairy products. Also limit your daily amounts of sodium and sugar.  We consume a lot of added sugar and empty calories from the beverages we drink so be mindful of what you are sipping and sip smarter. Drink more water.
  5. Quit smoking. Quitting tobacco can improve your HDL level, lower blood pressure as well as reduce the risk of cancer and chronic lung disease. If you quit, your risk of heart disease and stroke starts to drop until it’s as low as a nonsmoker’s risk. Although it can be difficult, it is one of the most important things you can do for your health.  
  6. Stress less. Unmanaged stress can contribute to numerous health problems including high blood pressure and heart disease. Exercise, yoga, prayer and meditation, proper nutrition and getting enough rest are important strategies to deal with stress. If you are having difficulty coping, talk to a health care provider or counselor.  Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  7. Limit alcohol. Consuming too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and interfere with the effectiveness of blood pressure medication. Alcohol has also been linked to several cancers, including breast cancer. If you drink alcohol consume in moderation. Moderation means no more than one drink a day for women or one to two drinks a day for men. Keep in mind that a drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor.
  8. Get your Z’s. When it comes to your health, getting enough sleep is just as important as eating well and getting enough exercise. Those who suffer from sleep apnea and insomnia are at increased risk for heart disease, arrhythmias, stroke and hypertension, as well obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. For a healthy heart try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
  9. Medications. Take diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol medications as prescribed.

Please don’t take your heart for granted. “Love, nurture, cherish and protect it” so that you can share your heart with the ones you love.

Sandy Tschosik

Sandy Tschosik

Sandy Tschosik was born and raised in Winnipeg. After earning her Bachelor of Nursing degree from the University of Manitoba, she decided that Canadian winters were too cold and moved “south” to start her nursing career in Bismarck. Sandy has a passion for motherhood, wellness and hockey.