User's Manual: Your Heart

What Your Heart Needs Now

Things to do in your 30s, 40s, and beyond


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The statistics are sobering: Heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the United States. And an estimated eight million women have it. Whats more, a new study shows that in recent years, the overall heart disease risk for Americans—especially women—hasnt continued the healthy downward trend it showed in previous decades. Ready for some good news? You can do more to prevent heart disease than almost any other serious condition. Start with these age-specific steps.

Your 30s

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Declare a trans fat–free zone
Commonly used to extend the shelf life of packaged foods like cookies and crackers, and also found in margarine, trans fats pack a double whammy: They raise bad cholesterol (LDL), while lowering good, protective HDL (your LDL should be below 100; your HDL, above 60). In a Harvard University study, women with the highest level of trans fats in their blood had triple the risk of heart disease. Take a cue from major U.S. cities like New York and Philadelphia (which have banned trans fats from restaurants), and pitch them out of your pantry.

On ingredient lists, they show up as “hydrogenated” and “partially hydrogenated” oils. But scrutinize any product touted as “trans fat–free” at the supermarket too: Some manufacturers have replaced hydrogenated oils with tropical oils that are high in saturated fat, which also raises LDL cholesterol. Eating out in a city where trans fats arent banned? Skip the fried stuff; many restaurants still use the oils for frying.

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Use your ob-gyn as a partner
During your prime reproductive years, you may visit your ob-gyn more than you go to your regular doctor. Make sure you talk to her about your heart as well as gynecological health, particularly because blood pressure (BP) can rise if youre taking birth control pills or when youre pregnant.

Women who develop preeclampsia (pregnancy-related hypertension) are prone to heart disease later in life. And, in general, “how your heart handles pregnancy offers a snapshot of how it will look in middle age,” says Sharonne Hayes, MD, director of the Womens Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn. To keep BP from creeping up (the safe zone is lower than 120 over 80), substitute herbs and spices for salt; try cumin for a healthy twist on popcorn, for instance. Too much salt causes blood vessels to retain water, which can lead to high BP.

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Simmer down
If you boil over when the shopper in front of you has 16 grocery items in the 15-or-fewer lane, beware: Losing your temper can damage your arteries, according to research by C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Womens Heart Center and endowed chair in Womens Health at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles. “Raging causes your blood pressure to surge and stay up there,” Dr. Merz says. Thats why its crucial to get a grip on anger at an early age, before it takes a toll. Instead of venting when a situation makes you furious, take a few deep breaths and describe to yourself whats making you angry. That should help you calm down.
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Lead writer: Julia Sommerfeld
Last Updated: January 15, 2009

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