Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2001;63(7):1405-1406

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States. American women are four to six times more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer. Here are some ways you can lower your risk of having a heart attack.


Smoking is the major risk factor for heart disease in women. More than half of the heart attacks in women younger than 50 years are related to smoking. If you stop smoking, you can lower your risk of heart attack by one third within two years.

Your chances of quitting smoking are better if you plan ways of coping with stress (for example, going for walks every day and doing deep-breathing exercises).

If you smoke more than one pack of cigarettes a day, you might try using nicotine skin patches or nicotine gum to help you quit smoking. There is also a prescription medicine is also available that can help you make it through the tough early days and weeks of quitting.

Talk to your doctor about how to stop smoking and how to keep from starting again.

High Blood Pressure

Treating high blood pressure can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. If your doctor has given you medicine to lower your blood pressure, be sure to take it regularly.


Brisk walking for 30 to 45 minutes three times a week can cut your risk of heart attack in half. If you don't exercise much, ask your doctor if it is safe for you to start.

If it is hard for you to exercise regularly, find a buddy to walk with or join a group. This may make it easier and safer for you to exercise often.

Water exercise programs in a swimming pool are helpful. This type of program is available at many YMCAs and other public pools.

You can use fitness equipment like exercise bicycles, treadmills and ski machines when bad weather or other reasons keep you indoors.


Exercise and a low-fat diet can help you lose weight. Being overweight means you have a higher risk for many health problems, especially diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Your doctor can help you get information about good diets and weight loss programs.

Low-Fat Diet

Even if you are not overweight, keep your fat intake to less than 30 percent of your total daily calories. Avoid saturated fat (the fat in meats and coconut oil). This helps lower your risk of a heart attack.


If you have diabetes, regular exercise, weight control, a low-fat diet and regular doctor visits are important. If you need to take medicine for diabetes, be sure to take it regularly.

Chest Pain

Chest pain is not always caused by heart disease. See your doctor if physical activity causes you to have any of these problems:

  • Chest pain or pressure in your chest

  • Pain in your shoulder, neck or jaw

  • Nausea

  • Shortness of breath or tiredness that comes on quickly

Will medicines lower my risk of heart disease?

Cholesterol-lowering medicines lower the risk of heart attacks in men. However, there is not enough evidence to show that these medicines work as well in women who have never had a heart attack. If you have already had one heart attack, cholesterol-lowering medicines can lower your risk of another attack.

At this time, it is not clear if estrogen replacement therapy helps prevent heart attacks in women.

Taking an aspirin every day may lower your risk of problems if you have coronary artery disease, a heart attack or angina. Aspirin makes your blood thinner, so it is less likely to make a blood clot. Angina is chest pain caused by a sudden decrease in the blood supply to the heart. Medicines called statins, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors may also help if you have heart problems. Ask your doctor if any of these medicines are right for you.

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Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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