Women and Heart Disease: Understanding the Risks
Risk factors are habits and conditions that make heart disease more likely. The more you have, the higher your chances of heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, and other heart problems. You can manage most risk factors to help make your heart healthier. Below are factors that increase your risk for having heart disease. Women also have specific risk factors such as pregnancy complications that are important to know.
This is the most important risk factor you can change. Smoking causes inflammation and damages the smooth muscle that lines the arteries making them less flexible. It also raises your blood pressure, causing further damage to the artery lining. Smoking also increases your risk that your blood may clot, block an artery, and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Smoking also damages your lungs, which can affect the delivery of oxygen to the body. Research shows that smoking makes women up to 6 times more likely to have a heart attack. It's also important to avoid secondhand smoke (smoke from other people’s tobacco products). If you smoke, it's never too late to improve your heart. Ask your doctor about nicotine replacement products and smoking cessation counseling.
Diabetes causes high blood sugar, which can damage blood vessels if not kept under control. Having diabetes also makes you more likely to have a silent heart attack—one without any symptoms. You’re at risk if your fasting blood sugar level is above 100 mg/dL.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood. It can build up along the artery walls. This is called plaque. Over time, plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart or brain. If a blood clot forms or a piece of the plaque breaks off, it can completely block the artery suddenly and cause a heart attack or stroke. Your risk of heart disease goes up if you have high levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol or triglycerides (another fatty substance in the blood). You’re also at risk if you have low HDL cholesterol ("good") cholesterol. HDL helps clear the bad cholesterol away. You’re at risk if you have: HDL cholesterol 50 mg/dL or lower; LDL cholesterol 100 mg/dL or higher; triglycerides of 150 mg/dL or higher.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure occurs when blood pushes too hard against artery walls. This causes damage to the artery walls and then the formation of scar tissue as it heals. This makes the arteries stiff. Plaque sticks to the scarred tissue narrowing and hardening the arteries. High blood pressure also causes your heart to work harder to get blood out to the body. High blood pressure raises your risk of heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, and stroke. The brain tissue is especially sensitive to high blood pressure damage. High blood pressure (hypertension) is defined as a systolic blood pressure of 140 mmHg or greater or a diastolic of 90 mmHg or greater in people at low risk. It is also 130/80 mmHg or higher in people at high risk. People at high risk are those older than 65. People are also at high risk if they have diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or known cardiovascular disease such as a past heart attack, stroke, coronary artery disease, or heart failure
Excess weight makes your heart work harder. This raises your risk of a heart attack. Being overweight also puts you at risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. Excess weight around the waist or stomach increases your risk the most. Being obese puts you at risk for developing heart disease.
Lack of exercise
Without regular exercise, you’re more likely to develop other risk factors, such as being overweight and developing diabetes. High blood pressure and unhealthy lipid levels are also more likely. Exercise promotes good blood flow and ensures your heart is able to meet the demands placed on it.
Emotions such as stress, anxiety, and pent-up anger have been linked to heart disease. Over time, these emotions could raise your heart disease risk. If you have heart disease, emotion such as anxiety and depression can make it worse. Managing these emotions is important as they have been shown to reduce hormones that increase stress on the heart in the long run.
This is caused by a combination of certain risk factors. It puts you at additional risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. You have metabolic syndrome if you have 3 or more of the following: low HDL cholesterol; high triglycerides; high blood pressure; high blood sugar; extra weight around the waist.
Risks you can’t control
A few risk factors can’t be changed. But they still raise your heart disease risk.
Family history. If your mother or sister had heart trouble before age 65 or your father or brother before age 55, you’re at higher risk of having a heart attack.
Age. The older you are, the higher your heart disease risk, starting around age 40.
Pregnancy complications. A history of high blood pressure during pregnancy or pre-eclampsia, diabetes during pregnancy, and preterm birth increase risk for heart disease.
Autoimmune conditions such as lupus and thyroid disorders are linked to heart disease because of an increase in inflammation.