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Bolstering heart health for women

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More women die of heart disease than of any other cause; however, only one in five women believes it is her greatest health threat.

Studies show that maintaining a healthy diet and physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 80 percent.

Examiner spoke with Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, an attending cardiologist at the Lenox Hill Hospital and spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women movement about women's heart health.

Examiner: What are the most common heart attack symptoms for women?

Dr. Steinbaum: Men often get the clutching chest pain of the typical "Hollywood Heart Attack,” but women's symptoms are much more subtle. Women can get shortness of breath, chest pain, jaw pain, back pain, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, nausea or sweating. Sometimes it is a combination of these symptoms. Most importantly, if doing activities you usually do become hard or challenging due to any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

Examiner: Are these symptoms the same for men?

Dr. Steinbaum: Men typically get chest pain, described as "an elephant sitting on my chest,” as the most common symptom of a heart attack.

Examiner: What factors increase the risk of heart disease for women?

Dr. Steinbaum: Risk factors for heart disease include controllable ones based on lifestyle choices, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle or stress. The other risk factors that we can't change include family history, age and sex. Other risk factors for women include high blood pressure or preeclampsia, elevated blood sugars or gestational diabetes in pregnancy.

Examiner: What role does stress play in heart disease?

Dr. Steinbaum: Stress plays a significant role in increasing the risk of heart disease. Stress leads to the release of hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, which increase heart rate, blood pressure as well as inflammation. Stress can also cause sleep disturbances and overeating and can lead someone to consume more alcohol and tobacco.

Examiner: Does exercise help reduce the risk of heart disease? If so, how much exercise should a woman do and with what frequency?

Dr. Steinbaum: As I say often, "Exercise is the best medication." It reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week with activities like jogging and biking, but even walking is beneficial. Walking 10,000 steps per day can help protect against obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The more physically fit you are, the less chance of dying from heart disease.

Examiner: How does diet impact a woman's heart health?

Dr. Steinbaum: The Western Diet increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30 percent. A heart healthy diet can reduce heart disease by as much as 35 percent, if not more. Diet is a crucial part of a heart healthy life. The Mediterranean diet, filled with multi-grain and whole wheat products, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oils, and fish, is the most heart-healthy diet.

Examiner: What else can women do to lower the risk of heart disease and heart attacks?

Dr. Steinbaum: Stress management is a critical part of managing life and heart health. Meditation and yoga have been shown to be very effective ways of managing stress. Breathing or just even laughing has also been shown to dilate the arteries, decrease blood pressure and be part of maintaining a healthy life. Your outlook on life, whether you are pessimistic or optimistic, makes a difference too. Those who look at life with more optimism tend to have better outcomes and decrease the incidence of having heart disease.

Examiner: What is the Go Red for Women Luncheon and how does it help?

Dr. Steinbaum: Go Red for Women started 10 years ago, by women for women, and was meant to educate and empower about heart disease. Since 1986, heart disease has been the number one killer of all women, more than all cancers combined. Awareness of this reality has been challenging, with only 60 percent of white women, 43 percent of African American women, and 44 percent of Hispanic women aware that heart disease is their number one health threat.

The Go Red For Women Luncheon helps to raise money for needed research, education, and to continue the outreach that has increased the visibility of Women and Heart Disease throughout the world. This year, Grain Foods Foundation is a sponsor of the Luncheon in New York City.

For heart-healthy recipes, expert nutrition advice from Dr. Steinbaum and other Scientific Advisory Board members, as well as video tips for including more wholesome bread and grains in your diet, visit GrainsForYourBrain.org.

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