Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2002;65(2):228

Heart Disease and Women

Heart disease is a disease of the arteries that bring blood to the heart muscle. It is the number one killer of American women.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

You can't do anything about some risk factors for heart disease. For example, you are at higher risk if:

  • You are 55 years of age or older

  • One or more “first degree” relatives got heart disease at an early age. For example, a father or brother with heart disease before age 55, or a mother or sister with heart disease before age 65.

However, you can do something about many other risk factors:

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Diabetes

  • Overweight, especially if your waist measurement is more than 35 inches

  • Physical inactivity

  • High blood pressure (above 140/90)

  • High LDL cholesterol level (above 160). LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. It is often called the “bad” cholesterol.

  • Low HDL cholesterol level (below 40). HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. It is often called the “good” cholesterol.

Your doctor can help you find out your 10-year risk of getting heart disease.

How to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

Here are some things you can do:

  • If you smoke, stop smoking.

  • If you have diabetes, control your glucose (blood sugar) level.

  • If you are overweight, lose weight.

  • Exercise regularly. For example, walk or ride a bicycle for 30 minutes at least three times a week.

  • Eat fewer high-fat foods, like butter, cheese, meat, and some vegetable fats (palm oil and cocoa butter). Foods that are high in saturated fat should be less than 7 percent of your total daily calories.

  • Eat more high-fiber foods, like vegetables, fruits, grains, and whole-grain breads, cereals, and pasta.

Your doctor can help you plan a healthy diet. If exercise and diet do not help enough, you might need to take medicines.

Finding More Information

You can learn more by contacting these groups:

American Heart Association (ask for “Women's Health Information”)

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood

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