Women Can Dramatically Reduce their Risk of Heart Disease with Six Healthy Living Habits

The New England Heart and Vascular Institute at CMC is reaching out to women in February with a message: living a healthy active lifestyle can help protect you against heart disease.

Published 2/9/2015

The New England Heart and Vascular Institute at CMC is reaching out to women in February with a message: living a healthy active lifestyle can help protect you against heart disease.

“New research showed that young women with a healthy lifestyle had a 92 percent reduction in their risk of heart disease,” said Jeffrey Bleakley, MD, interventional cardiologist at the New England Heart and Vascular Institute.  “Women should not wait until midlife to start thinking about their risk of heart disease, and instead should start thinking about it in their twenties and thirties”

The 20-year study, which followed 90,000 female nurses beginning when they were 27-44 years old, was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in January. The researchers tracked six behaviors described as healthy:
• Not smoking
• Exercising at least 2.5 hours a week
• Having a normal weight
• Watching seven or fewer hours of television a week
• Eating a healthy diet
• Drinking no more than one alcoholic drink a day

Following these healthy living habits reduced the development of risk factors that contribute to heart disease including diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Fewer risk factors mean fewer heart attacks.

From 1991-2011, 460 women in the study had heart attacks and 1,691 were diagnosed with one or more risk factors.  Women who practiced all six healthy behaviors had a 92 percent reduction in heart disease and a 66 percent reduction in risk factors when compared to those who did not practice healthy habits.

“There is considerable evidence that a tobacco-free lifestyle characterized by healthy eating and physical activity is protective against heart disease,” said Bleakley.   

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. Other contributors include diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.

Achieving the six earmarks of healthy living identified in this study is not always easy for women. About five percent of study subjects were in compliance with all six healthy living habits at any one time.  “I was borderline on just about everything,” said Mary Wood-Gauthier, who had a heart attack last March at 61, “…borderline overweight, borderline high blood pressure, borderline high cholesterol.” 

Since last year Wood-Gauthier reorganized her priorities and now leads a more balanced, healthy life. “You think you are immune to it all, so you push the envelope and don’t stop and evaluate the need to do everything to the extreme and the impact that it takes on how you eat and what you eat.”

A community health education coordinator and part-time labor and delivery nurse, Wood-Gauthier was also teaching adjunct courses for two colleges.  “Women often put their personal health after their children, family, career, domestic and other responsibilities. As caregivers, women have trouble putting themselves first. The dog probably is probably up to date on all his heartworm shots and medications, but his owner doesn’t know her own blood pressure or cholesterol.”

The New England Heart and Vascular Institute wants women to understand the risks and warning signs of heart disease. Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms according to the Centers for Disease Control. For others, the symptoms are different than expected. Women are more likely than men to describe chest pain that is sharp and burning. Women more frequently have pain in their neck, jaw, throat, abdomen, or back. Signs of a heart attack in women also include indigestion, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue and shortness of breath.

 “It started in the morning,” said Wood-Gauthier, “I just wanted to curl up and go back to bed. I was tired and had cramping in the shoulders so I took a couple of Advil and went to my daughter’s play. Afterwards we went out to eat. I stood up from the dinner table because I was nauseous and started vomiting violently.”

Wood-Gauthier went home and looked up the Go Red for Women website to check the symptoms of a heart attack. It convinced her to go to the Emergency Room.   When she was registering as a patient and describing her symptoms, it hit her. “This is really chest pain,” she said.

Wood-Gauthier’s story is not uncommon. Many women delay seeking help and do not recognize the signs of cardiac distress.

“Don’t ever dismiss your symptoms. Go to the Emergency Room as quickly as possible and make sure someone else drives you,” said Bleakley.

“There was significant muscle damage. Had I gone sooner there might have been less damage,” said Wood-Gauthier. She wants other women to learn from her experience and take action sooner to prevent heart disease and to seek help immediately for signs of a heart attack.