Women's Health

Self Assessment: Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the cause of heart attack and stroke. With age, women's risk of heart disease increases. There are lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of heart disease and promote good health. These include a healthy diet, moderate exercise, drinking no more than 1 or 2 alcoholic beverages per day, and quit smoking.

Of these, smoking is the biggest single risk factor for heart disease in women and the greatest cause of preventable deaths. Smoking strains the heart and robs it of oxygen. High blood cholesterol, low high-density lipoprotein (HDL), high blood pressure, a family history of heart disease, age over 55, being African-American, diabetes (sugar), and low estrogen levels after menopause are also risk factors. These risk factors are not simply additive; rather, the more risk factors you have, your chances from heart disease are multiplied. For example, if you smoke, have high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, you are 8 times more likely to develop heart disease than a woman with no risk factors.

At ages 45-54, the number of women who develop heart disease is 500 per 100,000, while for breast cancer it is 200 per 100,000. The risk of osteoporosis-related hip fracture is low at these ages, with an incidence of 41 per 100,000. Keep in mind, that is not the number of women who die from these diseases. By the time a woman is between the ages of 65 and 74, the incidence of heart disease greatly surpasses that of breast cancer: The incidence per 100,000 women is 1500 for heart disease, about 400 for breast cancer, and 306 for osteoporosis.

If you have stopped having menstrual periods, you should discuss the short-term and long-term benefits and the risks of taking hormone replacement (ERT/HRT) with your doctor as they relate to keeping your heart healthy.