LEWISBURG — "Heart disease is just a man's disease."
That's the most common misconception about heart health, and perhaps the most dangerous, said Cheryl Walters, a registered nurse in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Unit at Evangelical Community Hospital.
In fact, women over 40 have a one in five chance of developing heart failure — making it the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.
"If you have a heart, you can get heart disease," said Walters.
Taking good care of your heart should begin at birth, but the only way to take better care of your heart, she said, is by changing your lifestyle.
Research shows that women can lower their risk for heart disease by 82 percent by living a healthy lifestyle. That includes following a heart-healthy eating plan, getting regular physical exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking.
Quitting is one of the most significant steps women can take to immediately improve heart health, health care professionals say.
"About one year after you stop smoking, your risk of developing heart disease drops by more than one-half," said Walters.
At Evangelical Community Hospital, between 80 and 90 percent of patients who undergo a bypass surgery are also smokers, or have smoked at one point in their lives.
"We see a lot of women who have a dad who died of heart disease and are scared," said Walters. "They want to know what they can do to prevent it themselves. This is what we tell them."
Evangelical Community Hospital offers both one-on-one and group smoking cessation classes to help patients develop a plan to quit smoking. For more information on this program, call 522-2693.
Know your numbers
Don't just rely on your doctor to know your blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, blood sugar, etc., says Walters.
If you don't know your numbers, you can't take steps to keep it under control.
"The time you spend with your doctor is short," she said. "You have to become proactive when it comes to your health."
A normal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower, and high blood pressure is 140/90, but Walters says that even if you are experiencing higher than normal levels (121-139/81-89), you still have a higher risk of heart disease. Seek medical advice if your blood pressure is higher than 120/80.
A simple ways to lower your blood pressure include exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and reducing sodium intake.
"When people think of salt (or sodium) they think of a salt shaker," said Walters. "But low-fat foods can be loaded with sodium," especially when it comes to prepared foods.
When it comes to cholesterol "If your bad cholesterol is too high, you need to do something and if your good cholesterol is too low, you need to do something" to correct it, said Walters.
Keeping a healthy body mass index, or body fat measurement based on height and weight -- between 18.5 and 24.9 -- will also help keep your heart healthy. "When you're overweight, your heart has to pump harder" to get through your body, said Walters.
The best thing you can do for your heart is exercise.
Physical inactivity causes an increase in blood pressure, and makes you more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes and other heart-related illnesses. In older women, it can also increase the chances of developing osteoporosis, which can raise the risk of broken bones.
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