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6 Heart Health Mistakes Made by Women—and How to Avoid Them

Even though you think you’re being careful, it’s still easy to slip up when it comes to keeping your heart healthy. Johns Hopkins experts give tips on how to stay on track.

Two women jogging on a wooded trail.
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Take Diabetes Seriously

Women under 60 who have diabetes have up to four times the risk of developing coronary artery disease as women without diabetes, Johns Hopkins research has shown—much higher than previously believed. Women notoriously take care of everybody else while minimizing their own health needs. Learn the warning signs of diabetes and take steps to get blood sugar under control. 

Two other conditions related to heart disease that more often strike women are depression and rheumatoid arthritis.

Despite the fact that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the United States, there’s still a common misperception that it’s “a guy thing.” Women fear breast cancer more, even though they’re eight times more likely to die of heart disease. “The message is getting out more, but women still need help understanding all their risk factors,” says Pamela Ouyang, M.B.B.S., director of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Cardiovascular Health Center.

See which, if any, of these heart health mistakes often made by women apply to you.

1. Believing You’ll ‘Know’ When You Need to Get Your Blood Pressure Checked

It’s great to be in tune with your body, but that approach alone has its limits. “Women often tell me, ‘I got dizzy, so I knew my blood pressure was high.’ You won’t know when you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol—these are silent conditions,” Ouyang says.

How to proceed: Get your blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar measured regularly by your doctor. They can flag your risk for future heart trouble.

2. Installing an Exercise Bike in the Home

By itself, having a bike or treadmill is great. Trouble is, you have to use it often, and that’s where many women go wrong. They decide to embark on a new exercise program that’s not fun, natural or convenient—and so, after an initial push, they slack off.

How to proceed: Pick an activity that’s fun for you so you’ll want to do it often, like walking around the mall or running with a friend.

3. Smoking to Keep Weight Down

Keeping your weight in a normal range is great for your heart, but using cigarettes for weight control snuffs out those good effects. That’s because smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease.

How to proceed: Control your weight with diet and exercise. Don’t count on e-cigarettes, either. “They may not be as healthy as initially hoped—it’s still nicotine,” Ouyang says.

4. Not Knowing the Warning Signs of Heart Trouble for You

Heart attack can present differently in women than it does in men. Expecting a chest-crushing episode, women ignore other danger signs.

How to proceed: If you notice nausea, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing or other bothersome symptoms that are unusual for you, it’s important to consult with your doctor.

5. Avoiding Hormone Replacement Therapy at Menopause Because It’s Bad for the Heart

Some women suffer unnecessarily through intense hot flashes and sleep disturbances. While it’s no longer believed that hormone replacement therapy can protect the heart at menopause, that doesn’t mean you need to avoid it. “For most women in their 50s, the established cardiovascular risk is low, and it’s safe to take hormones,” Ouyang says.

How to proceed: If you need to, take hormones for menopausal symptom relief. Try a prescription at the lowest possible dose for the shortest period of time you can. 

6. Thinking Certain Health Problems of Pregnancy Ended with Your Child’s Birth

Your baby may no longer be inside you, but your heart, arteries and other organs still are. If you have diabetes that develops during pregnancy, gestational diabetes or hypertensive disease of pregnancy, such as gestational hypertension or preeclampsia, your risk for heart problems is much greater later in life, Ouyang says.

How to proceed: Always inform a new doctor of your full health history so that he or she has the information necessary to consider your individual needs.

Definitions

Arteries (are-te-rease): The blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart for delivery to every part of your body. Arteries look like thin tubes or hoses. The walls are made of a tough outer layer, a middle layer of muscle and a smooth inner wall that helps blood flow easily. The muscle layer expands and contracts to help blood move.
Cardiovascular (car-dee-oh-vas-cue-ler) disease: Problems of the heart or blood vessels, often caused by atherosclerosis—the build-up of fat deposits in artery walls—and by high blood pressure, which can weaken blood vessels, encourage atherosclerosis and make arteries stiff. Heart valve disorders, heart failure and off-beat heart rhythms (called arrhythmias) are also types of cardiovascular disease.
Risk factor: Anything that boosts your chances of getting a disease. For example, smoking is a risk factor for cancer, and obesity is a risk factor for diabetes.

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