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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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New Guidelines for Women's Heart Disease Prevention

What a difference a decade makes! From where we stand in 2011, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1999 that the American Heart Association issued its very first recommendations for heart disease prevention in women. Since that time, considerable progress has been made in understanding the causes and treatment of heart disease in women. Consequently, death rates have fallen substantially in most age groups. Despite the progress we’ve made, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in women, and there is still much work to be done. To help provide physicians and patients with the latest tools and information we need, the American Heart Association has issued a new, updated review of effectiveness-based guidelines that help to clarify and extend our understanding of women’s cardiovascular health.

With 26 world-renowned experts weighing in on the subject, the new guidelines are based on the most up-to-date and well-researched information available. Three risk categories are recommended to help guide decisions about medications, physical therapy, and diet. High risk women are those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes, or kidney failure. This group also includes those with a Framingham ten-year predicted risk score of at least ten percent (use this Framingham calculator to quickly estimate your own score).

Women in the group considered to be at risk are those with at least one of the typical risks we associate with heart disease (smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, inactivity, family history), but this risk category also includes those women with some conditions that have not traditionally been considered to be risk factors. These include an unhealthy diet (regardless of cholesterol readings), inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and a history of pregnancy-induced hypertension, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. Women with none of these problems but with an abnormal coronary calcium score or evidence of cholesterol plaque in the carotids are also considered at risk.

What buys you a ticket into the ideal sisterhood? A total cholesterol below 200, blood pressure under 120/80, fasting blood sugar less than 100, body mass index (BMI) below 25 (calculate yours with the Centers for Disease Control’s BMI calculator ), not smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, and exercising at least 150 minutes each week at moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.

Many women will be surprised to find that their risk level is higher than they may have believed. In fact, about 11 percent of women can be classified as high risk, a whopping 72 percent are at risk, and a piddling four percent fall into the ideal category. (13 percent could not be classified.)

The new guidelines are chock full of all sorts of useful and well researched information, much of which applies to men as well as women. Stay tuned, and over the next few weeks and months, I will share more of these important insights with you.

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Tags: Risk Factors for Heart Disease , Women and Heart Health

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.