Prevention

Because heart attack and stroke share many of the same root causes, many of your prevention efforts will give you double the health benefits by protecting you against both heart disease and stroke. Making lifestyle changes and taking action to improve your health can reduce your risk of these diseases by as much as 80 per cent!

For more prevention tips, read below.

 Don't smoke

Women, particularly young women, often feel pressured to smoke especially as a way to manage weight. For the first time, the rate of smoking among teenaged girls has exceeded that of teenaged boys. And almost one in four women aged 20 to 24 years smokes.

Smoking contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) that can lead to heart disease and stroke. Smokers have nearly double the risk of certain types of stroke. And women over 35 who smoke and use oral contraception (birth control pills) are at even greater risk of heart disease as well as blood clots and stroke.

The good news is that just 24 hours after quitting, your chance of heart attack decreases, and after one year, your risk of heart attack is half that of a smoker.

While smoking is an addiction and quitting may be difficult, your doctor can provide support and information about treatment options. You can find more information and resources on quitting smoking on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website.

 Lower your cholesterol

Close to 50 per cent of Canadian women between the ages of 18 and 74 have cholesterol levels that are too high.

Cholesterol and triglycerides are fats found in your body and your bloodstream. They are naturally produced by your body, and they also come from the food you eat—especially from foods high in saturated and trans fats. High triglyceride levels may be a more serious risk factor for women than for men.

As a woman, it’s important for you to know your actual cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to discuss with your doctor where your levels should be, and what treatment options are available for people who have high cholesterol.

You can lower your triglyceride and LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein)-cholesterol with a healthy eating plan, including substituting unsaturated for saturated and trans fats, and lowering your fat intake overall. Visit the Healthy Weight Action Plan and Healthy Eating sections of the Heart and Stroke Foundation website for tips on maintaining a heart-healthy diet.

 Manage your weight

More than half of Canadian women aged 18 and over are overweight or obese.

Women who are 30 per cent over their healthy body weight are two to three times more likely to develop heart disease. Being overweight can lead to other problems affecting your heart, such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and diabetes.

Women who are “apple-shaped,” or who carry the most weight around their middle could be at a greater risk than women who are “pear-shaped,” or who have the most fat around their hips and thighs. Abdominal fat is especially dangerous because it releases high levels of hormones that disrupt metabolism, causes high concentrations of bad fats to travel to the liver faster and signals that fat is building up around other crucial organs. Measuring your waist and regularly checking your BMI (Body Mass Index) are good ways to monitor your risk of heart disease.

You can learn more about abdominal fat and how to measure your BMI on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website.

You can manage your weight with a combination of dietary changes and increased physical activity. The Heart and Stroke Foundation offers a number of health tools that can help you set your diet and fitness goals, such as the Healthy Weight Action Plan that tells you how much physical activity is required to burn off the calories gained by eating certain foods. Seven to eight servings of vegetables and fruit each day plus limited consumption of saturated and trans fat and sodium puts women on the right track.

 Keep physically active

The shocking fact is that close to half of all women over the age of 12 are physically inactive. Yet physical activity is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Many women find it challenging to make time for physical activity in their busy lives, but your risk of heart disease increases twofold if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. Exercise helps prevent and control a range of risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and atherosclerosis (narrowing and blockage of the arteries).

The Heart and Stroke Foundation recognizes the importance of physical activity and recommends that Canadians incorporate a minimum of three sessions of weight-bearing exercise, plus 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (in minimum of 10-minute increments) each week.

You don’t need to make a big lifestyle change to get these benefits, instead you can build up to this goal slowly. Start by incorporating a 10-minute walk into your routine every other day. Try taking the stairs instead of the elevator wherever possible. The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s HeartWalk Workout offers a simple beginner’s walking plan.

Consult a physician before beginning any new activity if you have a heart condition, are 45 or older, or are between 35 and 45 and have risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease.

 Monitor your blood pressure

High blood pressure affects one in five Canadians. Monitoring and controlling your blood pressure can reduce your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent, your risk of heart disease by 50 per cent and your risk of heart failure by up to 25 per cent.

Blood pressure is the measure of the pressure or force of blood against the walls of the blood vessels, called arteries. High blood pressure can damage blood vessel walls, causing weakening or scarring that promotes the build-up of plaque and the blocking of arteries.

It’s important to have your blood pressure tested by your doctor or pharmacist, and to discuss with them what your test numbers mean. If your healthcare provider feels you need to lower your blood pressure, they may recommend that you:

  • Lower your salt intake
  • Take blood pressure medication
  • Achieve a healthier weight
  • Increase physical activity
  • Follow a low-fat diet

The Heart and Stroke Foundation has created online tools to help you assess your risk factors for high blood pressure, and create a personalized Blood Pressure Action Plan to reduce your risk.

 Reduce stress

Women can lead stressful lives as they juggle the responsibilities of work and family life. Because they often take on the role of caregiver for other people, they sometimes feel they don’t have the time to take care of themselves.

But taking the time to relax, unwind and enjoy life is actually an important way to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

People who experience high stress levels, anxiety and depression may make lifestyle choices, such as avoiding exercise or eating poorly, that increase their risk of high blood cholesterol, increased blood pressure or atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries).

You can try lowering your stress levels by:

  • Identifying the causes of stress in your life
  • Being physically active—physical activity can be a great stress-buster
  • Sharing your feelings with friends, family or coworkers
  • Taking time for yourself—get out and do something you enjoy!
  • Asking for help if you feel you can’t cope—talk to your doctor about treatment for anxiety or depression

The Heart and Stroke Foundation offers online tips and tools for stress management.

 Manage your diabetes

Diabetes plays a big role in determining a woman’s risk for heart disease and stroke. Women with diabetes are three times more likely to get heart disease than women who don’t—in fact, almost four out of five of people with diabetes will die of a heart attack or stroke. Additionally, women with diabetes are at greater risk of developing heart disease and stroke than men who have diabetes.

Women are also at risk for developing gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes occurs in pregnant women when increasing levels of pregnancy hormones interfere with the body’s ability to use insulin efficiently. Blood sugar levels may rise as a result. About three to eight per cent of pregnant women develop gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes usually disappears after the baby is born, but it can increase the risk that both mother and baby will develop diabetes later in life.

Approximately 3.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal women, and up to 18 per cent of Aboriginal women will develop gestational diabetes.

If you have diabetes, you can manage your risk for heart disease and stroke by:

  • Controlling your blood sugar and following the advice of your doctor
  • Eating a balanced diet with less fat and more high-fibre foods and complex carbohydrates
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Being more physically active

If you have had gestational diabetes in the past, be aware that you are at elevated risk for developing Type 2 diabetes during your lifetime. Talk to your doctor about your risks.

Find more information on managing diabetes on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website.

 Limit alcohol consumption

Drinking too much of any type of alcohol can increase your blood pressure and contribute to the development of heart disease and stroke.

You may have heard that alcohol – particularly red wine – is good for your heart.

There is some evidence that people who drink moderately have a somewhat lower risk of heart disease and stroke than those who do not drink or who drink excessively. However, if you really want to have an impact on your heart health, you’re better off eating a healthy diet, being physically active most days of the week and becoming smoke-free.

If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to one or two standard drinks a day; women should limit themselves to a weekly maximum of nine drinks.

One drink equals:

  • 341 mL / 12 oz (1 bottle) of regular strength beer (5% alcohol)
  • 142 mL / 5 oz wine (12% alcohol)
  • 43 mL / 1 1/2 oz spirits (40% alcohol)

The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends:

  • Moderating your alcohol intake
  • Talking to your doctor about the risks of drinking alcohol
  • Limiting your alcohol use and/or speaking to your doctor about alcohol if you have high blood pressure
  • Waiting at least one hour between drinks, and alternating alcoholic drinks with water or juice
  • Avoiding binge drinking or becoming drunk

 

For ongoing support, sign up for free e-tools that provide encouragement and valuable tips to boost your heart health: Heartbeats (3x a week) or My Health e-Support (weekly). If you’re looking for an extra boost to kick-start a healthier lifestyle, check out the <30 Day Action Plan app with tools and information to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.