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Heart disease and stroke prevention

from, Jan. 13, 2012

The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), in which plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that carry blood to the heart. Over time, this plaque buildup causes the arteries to narrow and harden, and this keeps the heart from getting all the blood it needs. Blood clots may develop. If the clot mostly or completely blocks blood flow to the heart, it causes a heart attack. Stroke happens when the brain doesn’t get enough blood. Without enough blood, brain cells start to die.

Heart attack, stroke, and other forms of heart disease are a threat to so many women. But you can take steps to protect your heart and lower your risk. Steps include getting regular physical activity, making healthy food choices, knowing your numbers and taking good care of yourself overall. It is also important to make sure you talk to your doctor about heart health and the use of menopausal hormone therapy or aspirin.

Physical activity

You don't have to become a super athlete, but your body needs to move. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans state that an active lifestyle can lower your risk of early death from heart disease, stroke, and many other health problems. It can also boost your mood. Health benefits are gained by doing the following each week:

  • 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity 
  • 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity 
  • A combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity 
  • Muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days

So pick an activity you like, and do it often.

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Healthy eating

Eating fatty, greasy food can make you put on weight. But that's not the only risk. Unhealthy eating has a direct impact on your arteries, your blood pressure, your glucose level, among other things. You don't need to go on a special diet to eat healthy. Just make sure you focus on eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, beans, peas, nuts, and lean meats. The foods you eat should also be low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol (koh-LESS-tur-ol), salt, and added sugars. If you drink alcohol, do it moderately. Women should drink no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

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Knowing your numbers

Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol (total, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides) and blood sugar levels. These simple screening tests will give you important information about your heart health. Your doctor can tell you what your numbers mean and what you need to do to protect your heart. Check out the Screening tests and vaccines section on this site to learn how often you need these screening tests.

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Taking care of yourself

Stress, anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep have all been linked to increased risk of heart disease. And they're not doing your mind or the rest of your body any good either. You may feel that you don't have enough time to take a break or get enough sleep now. But the possible results of overloading yourself, including heart attack and stroke, aren't worth it. In the midst of all you do, it's important to make time for yourself. Make sure you get the amount of sleep you need each day to wake up feeling refreshed. Take steps to keep stress in check, such as taking time each day to relax and unwind with friends or loved ones. And if you're having trouble coping because of depression, anxiety, or other emotional health issues, get help. Your doctor or a counselor can teach you healthy ways to reduce stress or suggest treatment for depression or other mental health problems. Although we don't know if treating emotional problems or reducing stress lowers heart disease risk, doing so will boost your overall health and well-being.

Does menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) prevent heart disease?

Once you reach menopause, your ovaries stop making estrogen, which protects against plaque buildup, and your heart disease risk goes up. You might wonder if menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) can help lower the risk. But recent studies confirmed that women should not use MHT to protect against heart disease. Rather, MHT is good at relieving moderate to severe symptoms of menopause and preventing bone loss. For now, the safest option for MHT is to use the lowest dose that helps for the shortest time you need it. Learn more about study findings and the benefits and risks of MHT in our menopause section.

Do I need aspirin?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women ages 55 to 79 take aspirin to lower their risk ofischemic stroke. This is advised when the benefit outweighs the possible harm of gastrointestinal bleeding. The benefit depends on your personal risk of both stroke and gastrointestinal bleeding. You should discuss your risk with your doctor and decide together if taking aspirin is right for you.

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More information on heart disease and stroke prevention

Read more from

  • A Lifetime of Good Health: Your Guide to Staying Healthy External link — This guide to staying healthy provides information on women's health needs for living long and living well throughout the years. Although you cannot control all risk factors for diseases, such as your age or family history, you can control many risk factors by following the key preventive steps included in the guide.
  • Heart Disease Fact Sheet External link — This fact sheet on women and heart disease includes information about risk factors, prevention, and treatment of heart disease.
  • Stroke Fact Sheet External link — This fact sheet answers questions about stroke, including information about warning signs, effects, and risk factors.

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