It’s easy to take your heart for granted – after all you can’t see it. But it’s important that you pay your ticker some attention, because coronary heart disease kills three times more women than breast cancer every year in the UK. Many people still see heart disease as a male health problem, but in fact heart disease kills as many women as it does men.
The main difference between heart disease in men and women is that women tend to develop it later in life. “Pre-menopause it’s thought that your heart is given some protection by the hormone oestrogen,” says Amy Thompson, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
“After the menopause when oestrogen levels drop, your heart health can decline.”
It’s especially important that you’re aware of the risk factors of heart disease and the symptoms of a heart attack once you’ve been through the menopause. “Women are often slow to call 999 when they have a heart attack,” says Amy. “That’s usually because we are very good at being too busy to be ill and we’re unaware of the symptoms.” Ignoring signs of a heart attack means that you’re putting your health – and your life – at risk.
When to call 999
If you have any of the symptoms of a heart attack – such as pain, discomfort or a dull ache which feels like indigestion in your chest and doesn’t go away, pain that spreads into your arm, neck or jaw, or if you feel sick, sweaty, breathless, light-headed, dizzy, and generally unwell as well as having a pain in your chest – you should call 999 immediately.
Healthy heart action plan
- If you’re a smoker, stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your heart health.
- Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than people who have never smoked. If your partner smokes, encourage them to quit too because research shows that living with a smoker puts you at a higher risk of heart disease than other non-smokers.
- As soon as you stop smoking your risk of heart disease reduces. Within a year, your risk is reduced by about half.
- Most people find quitting is easier if they have support. Many GP surgeries have stop smoking clinics; your local pharmacist can give you advice on nicotine replacement thereapy. Visit www.smokefree.nhs.uk
- A healthy diet could help you protect your heart in many ways. Firstly it could help you maintain a healthy weight. “That’s important because being overweight increases your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol which all contribute to your risk of heart disease,” says Amy. It’s especially important to lose weight if you carry a lot of fat around your middle. To protect your heart, women should aim for a waist measurement below 80cm (32 inches) and men 94cm (37 inches).
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – at least five 80g portions a day. That’s four broccoli florets, one pear, eight strawberries and three heaped tablespoons of carrots. Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and brown rice, and wholegrain cereals.
- Opt for low-fat dairy foods and lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish and beans for protein. Switch saturated fat from butter, cheese and red meat for healthy fats such as olive oil, oily fish, sunflower oil and nuts and seeds. Choosing healthier fats and foods containing plant stanols such as Benecol Plus Heart Vitamin B1 (£3.95/6-pack) yogurt drinks could help you to lower cholesterol.
- Aim to eat less than 6g of salt a day – that’s just over a teaspoonful. Check food labels and avoid salty foods such as crisps and takeaways. Cook with herbs to help increase the flavour in food.
- US researchers have found that eating too much sugar could significantly increase your risk of heart disease. “There isn’t any evidence proving that a diet high in sugar could directly cause a heart attack or stroke,” says Amy. “But it could have a knock-on effect on some of the other risk factors; high levels of sugar in your blood can increase your risk of developing diabetes, and the extra calories can lead to weight gain.”
- For a simple heart-healthy eating plan, visit www.yoursdietclub.co.uk
- Making time for regular exercise could help to lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol levels and help you to lose weight if you need to. It could also help to reduce your risk of diabetes. Currently less than a third of women in England do enough physical activity to protect their heart. Yet some experts believe that exercise may be just as effective as drugs for treating heart disease and stroke.
- Aim to do 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. You don’t have to do 30 minutes in one go if you find that too difficult – three 10-minute blocks counts too. You need to walk fast enough to feel warmer, breathe harder and feel your heart beat slightly faster than normal. You should still be able to hold a conversation though. The more you move the more your heart health will benefit.
- Build up your exercise gradually and stop if you feel very breathless, dizzy or unwell. Always check with your GP before you start any regular exercise plan – especially if you have high blood pressure.
For more health advice, pick up the latest issue of Yours