Published on January 30, 2019

Women can reduce risk of heart disease with diet and exercise

By Jean Larson, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.

Jean Larson, dietitian

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cardiovascular disease outranks all forms of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and pneumonia in causing death. Fortunately, heart disease is largely preventable through lifestyle.

Unfortunately, cardiovascular disease is often overlooked in women. Women historically have been underrepresented in research studies. Women typically have worse outcomes when they are diagnosed and are treated more conservatively. Many people believe coronary artery disease to be a man’s condition, but this simply isn’t the case.

Estrogen, the predominant female hormone, has a variety of beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. These include maintaining healthy blood pressure, lipid metabolism, healthy cholesterol levels and antioxidant activity, which protects against oxidation and cell damage. These benefits help protect women in early life.

But as estrogen declines around menopause, women start becoming more susceptible. Levels of HDL cholesterol decline while levels of LDL cholesterol rise. Antioxidants are substances that protect your cells against damage, and these tend to decline at this time. The earlier a woman experiences menopause, the higher her risk becomes. By age 75, 85 percent of American women have high blood pressure.

So, what can be done? There are risk factors you have control over, including diet, sleep, stress, physical inactivity, tobacco and drug use, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels.

Lack of exercise is as great a risk factor as smoking. Get your body moving every day for at least 30 minutes. Find a physical activity you actually enjoy, whether its walking, skiing, weight-lifting or yoga. Regularly moving your body in this way will help lower blood pressure, support healthy blood sugar levels, improve lipid profiles, and promote a healthy weight.

Clinical studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet improves lipid levels in postmenopausal women. Specifically, it can help raise HDL and lower triglycerides. This diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, dairy products, extra virgin olive oil, spices and modest amounts of poultry, fish and red meat. It’s not just one food alone, but the combination of all these foods that provides the benefit.

Incorporate foods that rich in polyphenols, which are nutrients with antioxidant activity. These foods include pomegranates, onions, olives, extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground flaxseed and green tea. Polyphenols play a key role in insulin sensitivity, cellular health, cognition and cardiovascular health as well as supporting a healthy gut.

Dietary or herbal supplements to consider include EPA and DHA rich fish oils, magnesium and ashwagahnda. Its best to discuss any medication or supplements you plan to take with a qualified health practitioner to ensure they’re safe and effective for you.