It may come as a surprise to learn that cardiovascular disease is the number one health threat to women over age 25, and is responsible for six times as many deaths each year as breast cancer.
Even more surprising are the results of a study published in January that followed 90,000 women over two decades. While the overall rate of deaths from heart attacks over the past 40 years has declined, the study found that the rate for young women – ages 35 to 44 – has slightly increased.
Not an older person's problem
“Most of us think that heart attacks are an older person’s ailment that usually affects men, but in fact, cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack, stroke, heart failure and heart valve problems, is the number one killer in the country, even of young women,” said Dr. Shaista Malik, medical director of the UC Irvine Health Preventive Cardiology Program and an expert in women’s cardiovascular health.
Although the study findings may be startling, the women in the study who followed six very familiar lifestyle habits – no smoking, no more than one alcoholic beverage a day, less than seven hours of television watching per week, exercising at least 2.5 hours a week, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a healthy diet – had a 92 percent lower risk of heart attack and a 66 percent lower rate of developing a heart disease risk factor.
Reversing the trend
The reasons why women are not incorporating these simple habits into their lifestyle, Dr. Malik says, is because many of them are not really thinking about heart health, and “do not think that heart disease is something that will affect them later in life. However, we now know that as a population, we are becoming more overweight and obese, so heart disease is becoming an issue earlier in life.”
To help reverse this rising trend, Dr. Malik says that women should be aware of four numbers – their cholesterol, body mass index, blood sugar and blood pressure. “In particular, those women who have a family history of heart disease or an elevated risk based on those numbers, should be sure to get checked out by a doctor.”
The study, “Healthy Lifestyle in the Primordial Prevention of Heart Disease in Young Women,” followed almost 90,000 nurses aged 27 to 44 from 1991 to 2011 and was published in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.