Seventh in a series of Ten Habits for a Healthy Mom

By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

Victoria didn’t want to go to the hospital.  She was convinced that the chest discomfort she was feeling was due to the slaw dog she had for lunch but her medical student daughter insisted that she get checked.  At her small community hospital ER, Victoria was placed in an observation room while doctors attended the patient in the adjoining room.  Victoria actually knew the patient, Fred from the hardware store, who had come in the ER at about the same time.  He was in his 60’s, overweight and always seemed to be on edge. This afternoon, Fred was having chest pain.  The triage nurse took a look at both Victoria and Fred and decided he needed more immediate attention.  After all, he had all the risk factors, male, over 50, obese, type A, while Victoria was a relatively healthy looking woman in her late 50s.  By the time the nurse got around to taking Victoria’s EKG, they were all surprised to find that she had a mild heart attack.

This little drama is actually a reoccurring scenario around the country. In fact, a recent study showed that men are more likely to be aggressively treated for chest pain than women.  The reality is that heart disease is the number one killer in women over 50.

According to the American Heart association:

• Cardiovascular diseases and stroke cause one in three women’s deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every 80 seconds.

• An estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected by cardiovascular diseases.

• 90% of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke.

• Women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke than men.

• 80% of heart disease and stroke events may be prevented by lifestyle changes and education

• Fewer women than men survive their first heart attack.

• The symptoms of heart attack can be different in women and men and often misunderstood – even by some physicians.

   

So heart disease is a big deal for women.  What can you do to reduce your risk?  I’m glad you asked!

1) Stay active…forever.  You are never too young or definitely never too old to benefit from exercise.  There is no single controllable risk factor that has as much overall goodness as moving.  This doesn’t mean training for a marathon.  You can get significant benefits from just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day.  Some studies even show good results by doing bursts of 10 minute exercises two to three times a day.  Granted you may have some physical limitations but almost everyone can find some activity that will help the heart.

2) Banish saturated fats and trans fats from your life.  This is the stuff that jacks up your evil cholesterol (LDL) and increase the clogging of your pipes.  Things like highly processed meats and cheeses should be outlawed (maybe a bit drastic) but at any cost avoid anything with the poison trans fats. Fatty cold water fish give you the good fats while foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as avocado, flax seeds, olive oil are heart healthy.

3) Know your numbers…especially your blood pressure.  A chronically elevated blood pressure is a ticket to a heart attack or stroke.  It’s a big deal. Don’t ignore this simple measurement.  Another important number is your lipid profile.  This includes types of cholesterol and triglycerides.  A less known but very important number for heart risk is a measure of inflammation in the body called the c-reactive protein.  All these should be checked at least yearly.

4) Reduce your per cent body fat.  We used to tout simply losing weight but it is actually your body fat that influences changes that contribute to heart disease.  There are a number of simple scales that can measure body composition which can be invaluable in determining if you are at a healthy place. Less body fat, less inflammation, less heart disease.

5) Don’t be sweet.  Elevated blood sugar, either as pre-diabetes or frank diabetes, triples your risk of heart disease.  Too much sugar in the diet, be it through starchy carbohydrates, sugary drinks, or processed foods, contributes to both weight gain and clogging of the arteries.  Diet and activity is always the best way to control this, but there are medications that can help.

6) Throw away the cigarettes.  What reasonable person today doesn’t know that smoking is simply a slow, steady method of suicide?  Smoking is an addiction and like all addictions, stopping is difficult, requires help, and fraught with challenges.  Don’t go at it alone.  Your doctor has some tools to help and there are numerous programs with a great track record in helping folks kick the habit.

Moms can leave a legacy of health by minimizing their risks and teaching those they love how to do the same.    

This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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