Ancient mythologies from various countries see the heart as the seat of emotion. We are ruled by the heart. It was believed by ancient Egyptians to house the soul and mind of a person.
The heart often overrules the head even though we now know that it is the head, or the brain, that controls the inner workings of the body. It was the heart of a man that was judged as to his innocence or guilt.
It is still the heart that determines a lot about a person, namely their health. In reality, the heart is associated with emotional states but has more to do with keeping you upright than how you feel.
The heart is a hollow muscle that is positioned underneath your ribcage between your two lungs. Its job is to pump blood throughout the body via the circulatory system, providing oxygen for the cells.
When you think about how many pathways there are to your vessels, that’s a lot of work for one organ. It needs to be strong and healthy to make sure that the rest of the body receives what it requires to function properly.
The heart can fall ill for many reasons. Heart disease affects men and women. When the vessels of the heart are not adequately supplied with oxygen, this muscle has a hard time doing its job.
The results can be catastrophic even fatal. That is why it is so important to take care of it now and as we age. The brain may control responses throughout the body but, if the heart is sick, nothing else matters.
In order to save ourselves we need to know the risks, complications and ways to reverse the effects of heart disease. It is true that all risks are not preventable, but many of them are. The key is education and action.
In this article, you will learn about what heart disease is and how women are affected. Discover the risk factors and complications. Most of all get educated on the steps you can take to develop a stronger and healthier heart starting today. Don’t shorten your life unnecessarily.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
When people speak of heart problems and heart disease they are often talking about the male of the species. Women are affected by heart disease just as much as men. In fact, heart disease is the #1 killer of women even ahead of breast cancer.
One in three women dies from heart disease each year. That’s 33 percent of women dead from heart issues every 365 days.
Unfortunately for women, heart disease can be the “silent killer.” Our symptoms are not always the same as men, some mistakenly diagnosed as another condition when presented alone.
For this reason, heart disease in women is not as widely understood as it is in the male population. Many risk factors are the same for both genders with close to 100 percent of women have at least one of those factors present in their lives right now.
Race plays a part in the equation as well. Hispanic women develop heart disease much earlier than Caucasian women. African American women have cardiovascular disease as their leading cause of death.
These are alarming statistics. Almost 50 percent of African American women over the age of 20 have cardiovascular disease. Only 30 percent of Hispanic women know that they are at a higher risk for heart disease due to their ethnicity. 1
Heart disease is everyone’s problem. In today’s society, many of our lifestyle choices and habits contribute to the rising risks of developing this disease. If heart disease doesn’t kill you, it can cause major disabilities in your life as a result.
There are different forms of heart disease. All affect the way that your heart functions. The most common cause is “coronary artery disease.” The vessels that feed oxygenated blood to the heart become narrow, restricting the flow of blood to the muscle itself.
When parts of the heart don’t receive blood as they should it can result in an irregular heartbeat as well as part of the tissue dying – a heart attack.
Consider “congestive heart failure.” Vessels of the body have narrowed meaning that the heart has to pump harder to deliver the same amount of blood and oxygen as before. Working that hard for so long can lead to the heart muscle giving out.
Problems with the heart can cause irregular or abnormal heart rhythms. It may beat too slow (bradycardia) or too fact (tachycardia) or not in a normal sinus rhythm to keep blood flowing at an acceptable rate.
Another type of heart disease is valve problems. One or more valves of the heart may not open or close properly, preventing blood from entering the chambers of the heart or allowing it to backflow through the heart. The amount of oxygen that the rest of the body receives is diminished.
We’ve already touched on one – heart attack. You can survive a heart attack but the result is likely some tissue death. Too many heart attacks and the heart can fail altogether. Others include:
Heart failure – A weakened muscle can become stiff from lack of blood flow and oxygen. In time, it stops working.
Aneurysm – Narrowing arteries can become weakened and balloon out. The thinning walls may burst.
Stroke – Narrowing of vessels in the brain prevent oxygen from reaching the brain. Since the brain needs 20 percent more oxygen than the rest of the body, this can result in impaired functioning all over the body. A blood clot that breaks away can lodge in vessel of the brain leading to an ischemic event and brain tissue death.
Peripheral artery disease – Also known as PAD, this can compromise blood flow to extremities leading to pain and tissue death.
How do you know that you are a candidate for heart disease? Study the risk factors and see if any apply to you. If you have even one, then that is one too many.
High blood pressure – This is often a silent threat. High blood pressure can run in families. It is a major risk factor in African Americans. With HBP, the heart has to work harder to pump the same amount of blood through your vessels. This increased pressure and tension can scar and weaken the vessels.
Smoking – Smoking can reduce the elasticity in the walls of the vessels. Blood can become sticky and form life-threatening clots. This is all in addition to the fact that it is bad for your lungs and increases blood pressure.
Diabetes – Diabetes Type 2 can develop when the blood sugar is out of whack due to poor dietary habits and also obesity. Increased blood sugar levels damages the organs leading to kidney disease, stroke, high cholesterol and of course, heart disease.
Weight gain – Carrying extra weight on your frame can increase the risk of heart disease especially when that weight is held around the midsection. It puts more pressure on the heart to infuse the extra tissue with blood. If you have developed diabetes after weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol may also be present.
High cholesterol – Cholesterol is needed by the cells in small amounts. Too much of the bad stuff and it can form sticky plaques in the walls of your vessels that narrow the passageway, increasing blood pressure and how hard the heart has to work to pump it.
Stress – Un-managed stress can wreak havoc with your internal systems including your heart. It can lead to unhealthy habits: overeating, smoking, drug and alcohol use. The results: high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle.
Inactivity – The body is meant to move about. Sedentary living can pack on the pounds and weaken the health of your cardiovascular system. If it is combined with other risk factors, heart disease might be in your future.
Family History – High blood pressure and heart disease can run in families as well as other risk factors. Knowing this can help you and your doctor stay ahead of the problem to protect your well-being.
How many risk factors do you have?
In order to save lives it is important to not only educate about the dangers of heart disease in women but also to dispel the myths.
Myth #1 – “Heart disease is a male problem.” Women suffer just as much if not more as you read in the statistics earlier. Women having heart attacks display symptoms like: nausea, vomiting, sweating, lightheadedness, fatigue, neck, shoulder or back pain and shortness of breath, and abdominal distress. These are not the typical left arm pain and chest pain type of symptoms but they can still signify a heart attack is in progress.
Myth #2 – “Heart disease affects old people.” Young women can suffer from heart disease as well especially if they have family history or heart defects. Even though you are young, if you have several risk factors for heart disease then you can develop it.
Myth #3 – “If I have no symptoms, then I don’t have the disease.” For women, lack of symptoms is often the case with heart disease. Family members see the actual heart attack as the first sign that there was something wrong at all.
Myth #4 – “If you look fit, then you won’t suffer heart disease.” Being overweight is not the only risk factor for heart disease. You can be thin and have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, both risk factors for heart problems.
Myth #5 – “I am already doomed because of my family history.” That is simply not so. Yes, family history plays a role but that often makes people more diligent about checkups and making the necessary changes to avoid sudden death or debilitating disease.
Don’t let the myths fool you. Learn the truth.
What Can be Done?
The statistics, risk factors, symptoms (or lack thereof) is scary, but you don’t have to feel like a ticking time bomb. There are ways to lower your chances of developing heart disease. If you have already been diagnosed with it or its precursors, all hope is not lost.
Keep it from progressing while still living a full and healthy life. In the next section we will explore the 7 steps you can take to keep your heart going strong for years to come.
7 STEPS TO A STRONGER, HEALTHIER HEART
Know your risk factors. We talked about them in the previous section. Here they are again (in no particular order): weight gain, diabetes, family history, high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, inactivity, stress.
STEP ONE – See your Doctor
This is the first step for anyone. You alone know how your body feels normally. When there is something wrong, you can sense it before you physically feel it. Don’t wait until you feel worse to do something about it.
Annual physicals are the time to ask questions and get testing done. Most major insurance plans will pay for them. Make sure that they do blood work. The results, along with any symptoms you are having, can help determine if you are at risk for heart disease. Your doctor may also recommend a chest x-ray, a stress test (electrocardiogram) or an echocardiogram to study your heart.
Discuss family history issues. On the history sheet, make sure to list any family member who suffers from any condition especially those that are risk factors for heart disease. Your doctor can take this into account when determining how to proceed further with health measures.
Know the numbers. For blood pressure, normal is a systolic (top number) less than 120mm Hg and a diastolic (bottom number) of less than 80mm Hg. When it comes to cholesterol, there are so many numbers it can easily become quite confusing.
Here are a few you need to know:
- Total cholesterol – less than 200 mg/dL is desirable
- HDL (good) cholesterol – higher than 60 mg/dL is desirable for heart protection
- LDL (bad) cholesterol – less than 100 mg/dL is desirable
- Triglycerides – less than 100 mg/dL is recommended
Now for BMI (body mass index).
Your doctor will take your height and weight.
According to the scale, a BMI of 25 is considered a healthy weight. Overweight category is between 25 and 30. Numbers over 30 are considered obese.
Of course, there are mitigating factors that your doctor may also take into consideration, but the fact is that you increase your risk of heart disease with each pound over what your body needs. On the bright side, losing even 10 or 15 pounds lowers the risk to your heart.
STEP 2 – Stop Smoking
Smoking is bad for your health. All of the public service announcements say so. The smoke from a cigarette can contain over 200 dangerous chemicals. These particulates are being inhaled to your own lungs as well as the lungs of everyone around you.
The research has now shown the danger of “secondhand” smoke in causing cases of lung cancer in people who have never smoked before. Smoking can lead to emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Smoking can also lead to heart disease. We already know that nicotine is habit forming but did you also know that it can raise your blood pressure? Increased heart rate and blood pressure force the heart to work harder pumping oxygenated blood throughout your body.
And, speaking of oxygen, when these dangerous particles from cigarettes fill your lungs, they leave less and less room for oxygen. That means less in the blood for the organs including the brain and the heart.
Younger women increase their risk of heart disease by taking birth control pills and smoking. One of the possible side effects of oral contraceptives is blood clots. Smoking makes the blood sticky which can lead to increased clot formation. Now you are at risk for strokes and heart attacks.
The entire body is affected when you smoke. There is good news through. If you quit smoking, you can lower your risk of heart disease. Stay smoke-free for a year and that risk is cut in half from what it previously was.
If you need to, use a patch, speak to a therapist or try another method that can help you to kick the habit.
STEP 3 – Change Your Eating Habits
You are what you eat. It is very true. It doesn’t matter if you are overweight or thin, eating foods full of unhealthy things like trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol and the artificial substances can hurt your body. Think about it. The body was designed to live off the land. In the Industrial Age, foods were preserved and prepackaged leading to the invention of substances that could keep them fresher, longer.
Artificial flavorings, colorings and preservatives were not meant to be processed by the body. It doesn’t know what to do with them. Foods that contain too many sugars can lead to more of it being stored as fat.
Give the body what it needs in order to feed the cells and fuel the activities that go on inside of our organs. A body that runs like a well-oiled machine is more energetic, more focused, able to deal with the stresses of life, strong, well-adjusted and survives longer.
Here are a few guidelines to help you change your eating habits and adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Eat fruits and vegetables – Of that “5 a day” make sure that at least 3 or 4 servings are vegetables. Fruits are good because they have natural sugars instead of artificial ones but sugar is still sugar to the body.
One serving of fruit is okay. Try for a high fiber choice like berries, a pear or an apple. As far as vegetables, the field is wide open: green leafy veggies, peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli, celery, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots and more.
Choose whole grains – Try foods made from the entire grain and not just parts of it. You receive more nutrition. Whole grains contain more fiber and can help to level off blood sugar levels and fight cravings. Think of oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, ground flaxseed and whole grain bread.
Choose healthy oils – Try olive oil, canola oil and oils free of trans fats. Butter sprays provide the taste without the extra fat. Limit creams, sauces and animal fats that can raise cholesterol levels.
Eat lean meats – Stick with lean pork, poultry and beef. Keep red meat to once a week if possible. Your body needs protein but you can also get it from other sources like nuts and vegetables.
Use fresh whenever possible – Canned foods have been processed especially vegetables and have less nutritional value. If you can’t get it fresh, then frozen is the next best thing.
STEP 4 – Manage Your Weight
Losing weight is easier said than done. It takes effort and support but you can do it. Steady weight loss is better than rapid because you are more likely to keep it off and maintain your new lifestyle changes. Here are some tips for losing unwanted pounds.
Portion control – Keep your portions small but filling. Eat more grains and vegetables than meat. Four ounces of meat is about the size of the palm of your hand. Keep measuring cups and a kitchen scale on hand when you are not sure. Guessing always leads to overeating.
Eat less sugar – Sugar spikes the blood sugar before bottoming it out. It can lead to cravings. Mix protein into each meal to avoid the cravings. Try foods with natural sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth. Chill some grapes or spread peanut butter on celery or an apple.
Eat breakfast – It is the most important meal of the day and it gets the metabolism going in the morning. Even if you eat a little bit, without it, the engines will stay sluggish all day.
Throw out the scale – You don’t need it. Judge your progress by the way that your clothing fits and how you feel.
STEP 5 – Get Active… Everyday
Eating better is not enough. The body desires to move. Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
Benefits of physical activity include:
- More energy
- Less stress
- Improved mood
- Increased focus
- Increased bone density and muscle strength
- Fewer illnesses
You can do just about any type of activity that you love. Yard work and housework count as physical activity. For a good overall workout, try walking. With each successive workout, try to quicken the pace to raise the heart rate.
For those with joint troubles, swimming is a non-impact exercise that strengthens the lungs and muscles.
The best way to proceed is to start slowly. Find 30 minutes to get moving. As your strength, endurance and lung capacity improve try increasingly more challenging activities like bike riding, running, aerobic dancing and weight training.
Weight training increases bone density and burns more calories with each strengthened muscle.
STEP 6 – Control Your Diabetes
We are talking about diabetes Type 2. This is the one that most people talk about when they also speak of obesity. Glucose is produced from the food that we eat. It is used to fuel the body.
In order for it to be most effective, insulin produced by the pancreas carries it to the cells. Eating a poor diet high in sugars can result in too much glucose circulating in the bloodstream. The pancreas may not be able to produce enough insulin to remove all of that sugar.
Too much sugar in the bloodstream can cause organ damage. Controlling diabetes is important for optimal health. This can be done through medication (insulin injections), change in diet and exercise.
Over time, the effects of diabetes Type 2 could possibly be reversed as the intake of sugar decreases and exercise and weight loss increase.
STEP 7 – Calm Down
Stress is a contributor to heart disease in women. Physical manifestations of stress can always appear in cases of chronic or severe stress. It’s like the body being on high alert all the time when stress levels are elevated.
Depression for one can affect the heart. Stressors in your life can lead to unhealthy habits as well that can cause problems that contribute to heart disease: high blood pressure, inactivity and obesity come to mind.
Learn to manage your stress and reduce its hold on your life. Here are a few tips:
- Develop a support system
- See a counselor
- Learn to meditate
- Take time out for yourself
- Get enough sleep at night
- Implement time management skills to prioritize your life
- Cultivate your faith
Refuse to let stress take hold of your life. Face issues when they first arise instead of letting them fester. Confide in a trustworthy person when you feel overwhelmed. Leave work issues at work instead of brooding over them at home.
The heart is a tough organ, but it has its limits. When you are good to it, there are many benefits to your life. Heart disease is a serious problem that all women need to be educated about.
Talk to your mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. Together we can keep each other heart healthy and strong. It can all begin with the 7 steps in this article.
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