A Woman's Guide to Beating Heart Disease

Gender words are used here to talk about anatomy and health risk. Please use this information in a way that works best for you and your provider as you talk about your care.

Surveys show that few women think heart disease is their greatest health threat. Unfortunately, it's the nation's number one killer. And women are its prime target. Over one-third of the women who die in the U.S. each year die of heart disease. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than breast cancer.

The risk of heart attack and stroke increases with age. That’s especially true after menopause. But you should start protecting yourself from heart disease early. The buildup of plaque in your arteries (atherosclerosis) can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis can start as early as your teens and 20s.

Check your risk

Talk with your healthcare provider about your cholesterol and blood pressure. Have both checked. The higher either of them is, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. To check cholesterol, a blood test is done, usually after fasting. This test is done to measure the fats in your blood. It can tell you:

  • Your total cholesterol

  • LDL (bad) cholesterol

  • HDL (good) cholesterol

  • Triglycerides, another form of fat in the blood 

But your cholesterol is only part of it. Your provider will look at your health history. They will also ask about your family history of heart disease. This information will help assess your personal risk for the disease. They may decide you need medicine to lower your cholesterol. Or they may want you to make lifestyle changes before prescribing medicine.

Things that put you at risk include:

  • Being postmenopausal

  • Having had a hysterectomy before the average age of menopause

  • History of or current use of birth control pills (oral contraceptives)

  • Being pregnant and having high-risk complications. These include diabetes, preeclampsia, and eclampsia.

  • Personal history of coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke, or peripheral artery disease

  • Father or brother under age 55 with heart disease

  • Mother or sister under age 65 with heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • High levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol or low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol

  • Type 1 or type 2 diabetes

  • Chronic kidney disease

  • Past or current smoker

  • Getting little or no exercise

  • Obesity

  • High-fat diet

  • High-stress life

  • Not getting enough sleep

Heart disease is preventable in some cases. The following lifestyle changes may help you lower your risk.

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight can raise your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also puts you at risk for type 2 diabetes. This condition can also raise your risk for clogged arteries and heart attack.

By losing weight, you'll lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. You’ll also be less likely to develop diabetes. Even losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can make a difference. Talk with your healthcare provider about your weight. Ask about options for weight loss or a weight management program.

Quit smoking

Smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack than nonsmokers. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can shrink coronary arteries, making it tough for blood to circulate. Smoking can also cause the lining of blood vessels to become stickier. As a result, blood clots are more likely. This can cause stroke.

Get active

Strive for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. This can be done in 30-minute chunks, 5 days a week. Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. It can raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol.

Change your fats

Change the fats in your diet. Don't have butter or other saturated fats. Instead, use vegetable oils such as olive oil and canola oil. But use them sparingly because all fats are high in calories. Each type of fat contains roughly 100 calories per tablespoon. Too much dietary fat of any kind can lead to weight gain.

Also, limit the following:

  • Full-fat dairy products

  • Fatty meats

  • Palm oil

  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils

  • Convenience or other prepared foods high in fat

Eat your fruits and veggies

Eat plenty of produce. Most women should fill half of your plates with vegetables and fruits. Studies link diets high in fruits and vegetables with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for heart disease.

Fiber up

Soluble fiber helps reduce LDL cholesterol. Oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and other whole-grain foods are excellent sources of this nutrient. Half of your grains should be whole grains.

Drink alcohol only in moderation

Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day. That’s equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits.

Your dietary needs depend on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity. Nutritional recommendations may vary if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. To learn more, visit www.myplate.gov.