PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW BAKER/GETTY IMAGES
Check out your most recent test results and call your doctor to have your heart thoroughly examined. But don’t stop there. “Know your waist size, blood sugar, and pregnancy history too,” says Lori Mosca, MD, director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
If you don’t know your risks, you probably won’t take steps to address them—steps that could save your life, says Mary Leah Coco, a heart disease survivor and spokeswoman for the national Go Red For Women campaign. “Heart disease is more than just a heart attack,” Coco says. “It’s not just needing open-heart surgery to clear a blocked artery; it can be so much more.”
Symptoms of heart attack in women are different than they are in men. In fact, 43% of women having one don’t feel any chest pain at all. What do they experience? Extreme fatigue. “In the days or even weeks before a heart attack, more than 70% of women experience debilitating, flu-like exhaustion,” says Marianne Legato, MD, director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine in NY. “You may suddenly feel too tired to cook dinner or lift your laptop.”
Other signs to watch out for: mild pain in the breastbone, upper back, shoulders, neck, or jaw, as well as profuse sweating, nausea, dizziness, breathlessness, sleeplessness, and anxiety. If you do experience any—or all—of these signs, call 911. Your odds of surviving a heart attack improve by 23% if you get treatment within 3 hours, and 50% if it’s within 1 hour.
Although it causes no symptoms, high blood pressure boosts the risks of heart attack and stroke, as well as aneurysms, cognitive decline, and kidney failure. Even worse? Roughly 30% of Americans have high blood pressure and don’t know it, according to the American Heart Association.
Fortunately, most people can bring down their blood pressure naturally without medication. Meditation and yoga, regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake, and reducing the amount of sodium in your diet are all good ways to naturally lower your BP.
Don’t worry: You can pamper your heart without feeling deprived. What should you avoid? “Lots of sugar, sodium, and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats,” says Dr. Mosca. To do that, keep soda, red meat, and cheese consumption to a minimum.
Research from the University of Oxford shows vegetarian diets reduce our risk of hospitalization or death from heart disease by nearly one-third. Non-meat eaters are not only significantly less likely to develop heart disease, but they’re also less likely to get cancer and foodborne illness, the research shows. “Most of the difference in risk is probably caused by effects on cholesterol and blood pressure,” says lead study author Francesca Crowe, PhD, in a statement. “[This] shows the important role of diet in preventing heart disease.” More research suggests a little meat is fine, provided you eat a plant-based diet heavy in fruits and vegetables.
For that time between meals, do like Dr. Mosca does: Pack your own snack-attack rescue kit to avoid relying on vending machines and drive-thrus.
At night or in the morning, pack a zip-top bag of cut-up veggies, a piece of fruit, or even some air-popped popcorn and tuck it in your purse or briefcase. (Check out these snacks to keep on hand if you’re a stress eater.)
At the office, stash a jar of peanut or almond butter in a desk drawer to use as a dip for carrots or apple slices (stick to 1 Tbsp of peanut butter or 2 Tbsp of nut butter). Or keep hummus in the office fridge as a dip for pepper strips, baby carrots, and broccoli florets.
You think you don’t have time for exercise, and you’re not alone. In a recent national survey of 2,300 women, 1 in 3 said she was too busy to take care of her heart health. But if you have time for a 10-minute coffee break, you have time for exercise. “The better your exercise plan fits into your real life, the better you’ll stick with it,” Dr. Mosca says. “A plan that works for you, even if it’s 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, is a sign of success.” It’s true. Three 10-minute walks reduced blood pressure more than a continuous half-hour stroll and kept it lower a full 9 hours longer in a 2012 study from Arizona State University. Taking 10-minute power strolls can also break up long periods of sitting, which may independently harm your heart. (Get a flat belly in just 10 minutes a day with our reader-tested exercise plan!)
Learning to take it easy is just as important as diet and exercise. But between wildly busy days and nonstop nights, few women know how. “So many of us have this problem,” Dr. Mosca says. “The important thing is to have a plan in place so that you don’t dive into a bag of potato chips when the going gets tough.” (Here’s how to prevent a food binge.)
Enter girlfriends. Get a mani/pedi, schedule spa treatments together, or just grab a cup of coffee at the nearest café. After all, friends are good medicine, according to a University of California, San Diego study that found women with bigger, more supportive social networks are less likely to be overweight, smoke, or have high blood sugar or high blood pressure.
You know all about the dangers of stress—it can trigger the release of the hormone cortisol, which can weaken our cardiovascular and immune systems over time. But did you know stress can also increase your chance of heart disease? “Stress boosts your risk of depression and alcohol abuse, both of which up your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Mosca. Stress also fuels unhealthy inflammation.
So how can you stay calm? “Use the time to get off the treadmill of daily life in whatever way works for you—exercise, a hot bath, time with a friend or your spouse, solitude. Change it up so you don’t get bored.” (Try essential oils for a blissful, tension-taming bath.)
If you do just one thing: Find a motivational motto. When the going gets rocky, tell yourself what Dr. Mosca’s father used to tell her: “When it’s too tough for everyone else, it’s just right for me.” That saying helps her cope with self-doubt and overbooked days.