You’re never too young—or too old—to start lowering your heart disease risk. Of course,exercising, eating healthy and reducingstress are key throughout life, but due to physiological changes that happen as we age, certain risk factors do become more of a threat.
Smoking is enemy number one when it comes to heart disease, and even just a few cigarettes can do damage: New research from McGill University in Montreal found that smoking just one cigarette a day stiffens your arteries by a whopping 25 percent. Plus, smoking erases the hormonal advantage you have from estrogen, which can leave you vulnerable to a heart attack before menopause, explains Dr. Bonow.
Remember that hormonal contraceptives slightly increase the risk of blood clots, so if you’ve ever had one, make sure to discuss it with your doctor before going on birth control. And if you’re currently a smoker, don’t take oral contraceptives, because the combo can be especially dangerous, says Sharonne N. Hayes, MD, director of the Women’s Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
When you’re juggling career and family, it’s crucial to find stress management techniques that work. “Untamed stress has a direct negative impact on heart health,” says Dr. Stevens. “The constant bombardment of adrenaline raises blood pressure and destabilizes plaque in your arteries, making it likely to cause a clot or heart attack.”
It’s important to stay connected to friends and family for the sake of your mood and heart. Research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that high levels of loneliness increase a woman’s risk of heart disease by 76 percent. On the flip side, having strong social support can help lower your blood pressure and improve other cardiovascular functions. Set aside time once or twice a week to call friends, or make a monthly dinner date.
You may discover that your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels have changed in this decade, even if you aren’t doing anything differently, says Dr. Hayes. In fact, 22 percent of 40-something women have high blood pressure and 50 percent have high cholesterol (a jump from 38 percent of women in their 30s), according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Also, be sure to get your thyroid checked around 45; hypothyroidism(an underactive thyroid gland), which becomes more common as women get older, can negatively affect your cholesterol levels as well as your heart.
You start to lose muscle mass more rapidly in your 40s, which causes your metabolism to slow down since muscle burns more calories than fat. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to stave off those extra pounds. To help maintain muscle and keep your metabolism going, aim for two 15-minute sessions weekly of lifting weights, using a resistance band or doing other toning exercises.
Around menopause, you tend to gain extra weight around your belly, which can lead to insulin resistance, inflammation and heart strain. Cardiovascular fitness also starts to decline, particularly if you’re not that physically active to begin with. “Unfortunately, at this point, women have to burn more calories to stay at the same weight,” Dr. Stevens says. Start taking the stairs instead of the elevator whenever you can, walk faster around the mall, or jog to the mailbox to send letters instead of sticking your hand out the car window as you drive by. Small changes really do add up.
Besides being good for your cholesterol and blood sugar, pumping up your fiber intake (think whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice and flaxseeds, as well as beans, fruits and veggies) can help prevent constipation, which becomes more of a problem as you get older and your digestive system starts to slow down.
After you go through menopause and get older, your blood pressure and cholesterol tend to go up, and blood vessels get stiffer. “Have your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol measured yearly,” advises Dr. Goldberg.
Now is when the first noticeable symptoms of heart disease may appear, so it’s important to know what’s normal for your body and be on the lookout for worrisome signs like chest discomfort, shortness of breath or changes in exercise tolerance—meaning you suddenly feel winded going up a flight of stairs or feel unusually tired for no apparent reason, says Dr. Mieres. If these appear, see your doctor pronto!