This is the tough one, ladies, but it’s also the most important. Cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke) is the #1 killer of women today. One in 3 women die from it. By comparison, 1 in 8 women die from breast cancer.
The news gets worse: about 44 million women in the US are affected by cardiovascular disease right now. Ninety percent of us have at least one risk factor, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, or being overweight. We are less likely than men to survive our first heart attack.
But the really good news is that 80 percent of cardiovascular problems can be prevented by knowledge and lifestyle change, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The other bright spot is that improving heart health also improves our brain health, because good brain function relies on good cardiovascular function. And we know that as we age, we are at higher risk for various dementias.
It’s important to honestly tackle those lifestyle changes right now because as we age, our risk factors for heart disease increase: cholesterol and blood pressure tend to rise; we tend to gain weight; sleep may be more difficult. So time, very literally, is of the essence.
Unfortunately, lifestyle change of the type required for good cardiovascular health is hard. Honest, systemic lifestyle change demands consistency, and self-discipline, and this is hard. Few among us achieve perfection when it comes to an overall health care regimen.
Fortunately, perfection isn’t required. Getting started and sticking to it is.
To get started, assess your current baseline. These are the most important numbers:
- Total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL
- HDL (good) cholesterol 50 mg/dL or higher
- LDL (bad) cholesterol less than 100 mg/dL
- Triglycerides 150 mg/dL
- Blood pressure less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Body Mass Index less than 25 kg/m2 (Find your BMI here.)
- Waist circumference less than 35 inches
Second: discuss your numbers with your doctor to get your marching orders: hash out what to focus on; what is possible, and how best to begin, especially regarding an exercise regimen.
And third: Get started! Every one of those important numbers measuring cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and weight can be moderated or controlled through diet and exercise. That’s it. A clean, heart-healthy diet and regular moderate activity could extend your life and help you to avoid the serious consequences of heart disease. Plus, you’ll feel better, experience less pain, and be more flexible.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
A heart-healthy diet for a woman over 50 should rely heavily on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat and lots of fish, whole grains, and unsaturated fat, such as olive oil. Cut way back on salt, sugars of all sorts, saturated and trans-fats.
Cook your own food so you know what’s in it. Processed foods are full of sodium and unpronounceable additives. Make eating out a rare treat.
Both Weight Watchers and the Mediterranean diet get high marks from nutritionists as being heart-healthy, not too restrictive, and easy to follow—thus good candidates for a successful lifelong change.
Drink lots of water (we lose the tendency to feel thirsty as we age) and take your multi-vitamins and supplements, such as calcium and vitamin D, as advised by your doctor. Here’s a ton more diet information from the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign.
Exercise is the second leg of cardiovascular good health. It’s hard to overestimate the benefits of regular, moderate activity—it regulates blood pressure, strengthens your heart and other muscles, increases bone density, and improves your mood.
The trick with exercise is to get started and to keep going because you will use every distraction in the book to procrastinate. It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. A brisk, 30-minute walk 5 times a week—that’s all! Start with 10 minutes if you’ve been sedentary, but keep challenging yourself.
If you live in an area with cold winters, you can walk in the mall or do cardio workouts at home with some of the very good fitness videos available online. Here’s a beginner workout from the inimitable Jane Fonda, who imparts salty health advice along with encouragement. Here’s a no-nonsense and very comprehensive set of workout programs to explore once you’ve built up some stamina. Stick with low-impact workouts, warm up thoroughly, and don’t overdo. Steady, consistent progress is better—and safer—than a jackrabbit start.
Finally, stop smoking. Not negotiable. Smoking adds incredible risk to your health. Do whatever it takes to eliminate nicotine from your life.
It’s January. This is a good time to seriously take charge of your health. Imagine how incredible you'll feel after spending the entire year working out and eating clean. Imagine actually witnessing the change in those numbers. Buckle up for a life-changing year.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.