In February We Celebrate Women’s Heart Health

By Kat Christian

On the first Friday in February, women everywhere donned vibrant reds in celebration of “Go Red for Women Day,” an annual event promoted by the American Heart Association that raises awareness for women’s heart health.

Not only does this national observance day kick-off Heart Health Month in style, it also draws attention to the staggering fact that each year, one in three women die of stroke or heart disease.

This statistic is startling, but there is hope.  Knowing the signs and symptoms of heart disease, making smart choices about your diet, maintaining a healthy weight and knowing your medicine can have a positive impact on heart health, and can help you live – and love – longer.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of heart failure and heart disease can help an individual to recognize an episode more quickly and lead to earlier intervention.

Shortness of breath, increased tiredness and fatigue, decreased appetite, nagging cough and change in alertness are symptoms that should be reported to your physician.

In some cases, symptoms are not evidenced by pain or discomfort, so it is wise to regularly visit with your physician to monitor your overall health.

With growing evidence that heart disease impacts women just as much as men, it is important to understand that making healthy lifestyle choices daily can have a positive effect on heart health.

Clinical Dietitian Brianne Meek, RD, LDN, Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Nittany Valley, addresses women’s increased risk.

“Post-menopausal women are especially at risk due to lower levels of estrogen, which in turn can increase triglycerides and decrease ‘good’ cholesterol,” Meek states.

“This imbalance can result in plaque formation in the arteries, putting women at risk for heart disease or heart failure.   Women can reduce their risk by including more omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, albacore tuna, walnuts, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds into your diet.

“These foods can decrease triglycerides and blood pressure while decreasing plaque build-up in your arteries.”

Meek recommends that when planning meals, it is important to remember the keys to a heart-healthy diet: look for foods low in sodium; replace saturated fats and trans fats with heart healthy fats, like omega-3’s; and introduce foods higher in fiber into each meal.

Understanding the misconception that heart-healthy diets are limited and bland, Meek encourages her clients/patients to consider what foods to include rather than exclude.

“Instead of limiting your diet, it is much more realistic to focus on healthy ways to dress up your dishes.  Adding black beans, edamame and seeds to a salad is a delicious way to serve a heart-healthy meal.

“Add fruit, low fat granola or ground flaxseed to your morning yogurt to make an appealing breakfast parfait.  Also remember to substitute plenty of fresh or dried herbs and lemon juice in place of salt or other high-sodium additives,” Meek suggests.

These heart-healthy foods are designed to give your body energy to stay active well into maturity. As women age, their hormone changes can cause weight gain or lethargy, both of which can invite heart problems.

Exercising for 30 minutes a day, at least three days a week, is a great way to keep the heart muscles strong.  Walking, light jogging, or transitional movements, such as sit-to-stand motions, are an excellent way to increase the heart rate and keep it strong.

It has the added benefit of helping a person maintain a healthy weight, which plays an essential role in heart health.  Discussing a healthy target weight with your doctor can help you keep track of your cardiac and overall health.

“For individuals with a heart disease diagnosis, diet, exercise, weight monitoring and medication should be overseen by a physician,” Meek says.

Patients with heart disease at Encompass Health are educated about how to track and log their weight and what to do when they experience a weight change.

A two-pound weight gain in a day, and a five-pound weight gain in a week, should be reported to a physician, as it may be a sign that a medication adjustment is in order.

While heart health affects a large portion of women each day, smart choices and partnership with a medical team can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and help to build a healthy life.  After all, healthy hearts love longer.

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