What Your Heart Needs Now

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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

donuts-nutrition donuts-nutrition . 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.

pregnancy-hear pregnancy-hear (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.

screaming-woman screaming-woman 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.

Next Page: Your 40s

[ pagebreak ]Your 40s

sleeping-woman sleeping-woman at least a few nights a week. Thats nothing to yawn about, either. When your body is deprived of restorative sleep, your heart has to work harder. And piles of studies show that too little shut-eye can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes.

How little is too little? A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that less than 7.5 hours per night puts you at risk for heart disease.

And recent research from Duke University found that women who take more than a half-hour to fall asleep or those who awaken frequently during the night have inflammation in their arteries and higher levels of insulin, two major risk factors for heart disease.

The soporific Rx: Do your best to unwind with a relaxing bedtime routine, like listening to soothing music or a soaking in a tub with bath salts. And despite how difficult it might sound, obey this rule: no technology or work in the bedroom; your bed should be for sleep and sex only.

sad-woman sad-woman , and that spells trouble for their hearts, says Jennifer Mieres, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor at New York Universitys School of Medicine. Uncontrolled stress can raise blood pressure and flood blood vessels with inflammatory chemicals, which in high doses can be toxic to the heart, while depression has been linked to hardening of the arteries. Then there are the unhealthy habits that come with stress and the blues: smoking, excessive drinking, and overeating.

Smart medicine for your mood and your heart? Exercise. Thirty minutes of aerobic activity (walking, biking, swimming) most days of the week has been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression by about half, an effect comparable to antidepressant use, while lowering blood pressure and strengthening your cardiovascular system. But if youre feeling low more often than not, talk to your doctor about therapy, antidepressants, or St. Johns wort. (New research suggests that this herb works as well as antidepressants and has few side effects.)

salmon-heart salmon-heart , and triglycerides (a type of fat stored in the blood) start creeping up, making a heart-healthy menu more important than ever. Aim for two servings of fish, like salmon or tuna, each week for omega-3 fats; or pick omega-3-fortified foods like orange juice, margarine, and eggs. Also, sprinkle ground flaxseed on yogurt or cottage cheese to lower cholesterol. And experiment with dishes that contain high-fiber foods like apples, broccoli, beans, and bran cereal. Health fads come and go, but a high-fiber diet has consistently proved to be good for the heart, says Leslie Cho, MD, director of the Womens Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.

Next Page: Your 50s-Plus

[ pagebreak ]Your 50s-Plus

swimming-helps swimming-helps at least three times a week. Try jogging, walking on the treadmill on a challenging incline, or swimming laps.

women-yoga women-yoga , such as a weight-lifting class, yoga, or Pilates, to your exercise routine at least twice a week, Dr. Goldberg recommends. Youll keep blood pressure in check, boost metabolism, zap more calories, control cholesterol, and improve endurance. Sum total? A heart thatll keep pumping happily for years to come.

Enjoy some "friend benefits"
Whatever causes you stress, leaning on friends for support and commiseration can help keep blood pressure in check. “There are clearly good things that happen to your heart when you care about people and people care about you,” Cedars-Sinais Dr. Merz says. Talk out the stress with friends over a walk or at the gym, and youll double your heart benefit.

This content was first published in Health magazine, January/February 2009