Many women may not be aware that heart disease and stroke are major threats to their health. But heart disease is the most common cause of death among women in the United States, and stroke is the third most common cause of death. Heart disease and stroke also are major causes of long-term disability. The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD). In CAD, plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that carry blood to the heart. Over time, this buildup causes the arteries to narrow and harden. This keeps the heart from getting all the blood it needs. Blood clots may develop. If a clot mostly or completely blocks blood flow to the heart, it causes a heart attack. If a clot mostly or completely blocks blood flow to the brain, it causes a stroke. Stroke happens when the brain doesn’t get enough blood. Without enough blood, brain cells start to die. The good news is that you can take steps to lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or other heart problems. Here are some things you can do:
- Don’t smoke. Smoking hurts your heart and increases your risk of stroke. If you smoke, try to quit.
- Get more exercise. Try to do at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, and muscle-strengthening exercises on at least 2 days each week.
- Eat heart-healthy foods. Focus on eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, beans, peas, nuts, and lean meats.
- Eat less salt. Use spices, herbs, lemon, and lime instead of salt to flavor your food.
- If you drink alcohol, don’t have more than one drink each day. Too much alcohol raises your blood pressure and can raise your risk of stroke and other illnesses.
- Get a blood pressure test. If it is high, talk to your doctor about how to lower it.
- Get your cholesterol tested. If it is high, talk to your doctor or nurse about losing weight (if you’re overweight), getting more exercise, eating foods low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and possibly taking medicine to help.
- Get tested for diabetes. If you have diabetes, keep an eye on your blood glucose levels. High blood glucose levels can play a role in cardiovascular disease (see box).
- Take your medicine. If your doctor has prescribed medicine to help you, take it exactly as you have been told to.