Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Women

Coronary heart disease, peripheral artery disease and stroke have an equal impact on people of both sexes. While cardiovascular mortality has decreased in men in recent years, it has increased in women. This is due principally to increased prevalence of smoking, high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, lipid (blood fat) disorders, stress, etc. In women, the risk of arterial disease, whether of the coronary arteries (angina, heart attack), cerebral arteries (stroke, paralysis, etc.), or the leg arteries, is similar to men, but tends to appear several years later. Generally this risk begins to rise after age 55 and is comparable to men's risk at age 70–75.

It has been demonstrated that awareness and treatment of cardiovascular risk factors is effective for decreasing the probability of cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovascular risk factors are basically the same for men and women, but some tend to be more harmful in women, such as smoking (at all ages, but especially at younger ages). Some risk factors can't be modified, including sex, age, and family history (having a parent or sibling with cardiovascular disease). But with respect to modifiable risk factors, lifestyle changes can produce outstanding benefits. Here are some modifiable risk factors:

Tobacco: Female smokers have six times more risk of a heart attack than female nonsmokers, even young females.

High cholesterol: The probability of coronary problems increases in proportion to increases in cholesterol (cholesterol often increases with the arrival of menopause). Coronary risk increases even more when high cholesterol is combined with other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, etc. It's important to be aware not only of high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides, but also low levels of good cholesterol (HDL). Each of these is easily measured with a blood test and often can be improved through changes in the diet and regular exercise such as walking. In some cases, medications (statins, etc) are necessary; cholesterol-lowering medications have been shown to be as effective and safe in women as in men, not only in reducing cholesterol but also in lowering the risk of a coronary event.

High blood pressure: Blood pressure should be measured at each medical visit; for adult women, resting blood pressure should be below 135/85 mm Hg (sometimes referred to as 13 and a half / 8 and a half). A level of 120/80 mm Hg (12/8) is considered optimal. If levels equal to or greater than 140/90 mm Hg (14/9) are measured on several occasions, the doctor will order tests to determine the type of hypertension and its possible effect on other organs of the body, and will recommend treatment.