Know Your Numbers, Protect Your Heart

Richard N. Waldman, MD

By Richard N. Waldman, MD
President, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the US, accounting for more than one-third of deaths among women each year. An estimated 42 million women in this country are living with some form of heart disease. Despite its prevalence, many women do not know much about heart disease and whether they are at risk for it.

Heart disease includes a number of problems that affect the muscle and blood vessels in the heart, such as heart attack, angina (chest pain that occurs when the heart doesn’t get enough blood), and arrhythmias (flutters or changes in the heart beat that can cause dizziness and shortness of breath). While age and family history play a role in a woman’s personal risk, other factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, smoking, weight, and waist circumference, may signal an increased risk of heart disease.


  • Excess cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to clog the arteries and set the stage for a heart attack. Ideally, total cholesterol level should stay below 200, LDL (“bad cholesterol”) below 100, and HDL (“good cholesterol”) greater than 60.
  • An estimated 74.5 million people in the US have high blood pressure. High blood pressure puts extra strain on the heart and blood vessels and can also damage the kidneys, brain, and eyes. Try to keep blood pressure below 120/80 mm Hg.
  • Diabetes increases the chances of heart problems. Additionally, women with diabetes often have other risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

Most women with heart disease have no symptoms, so it’s important to be aware of your personal health stats. No matter how healthy you feel, you should have them checked regularly starting at age 45, or earlier if you have risk factors. Knowing your numbers and working to keep them in a healthy range may help to lower your chances of developing heart disease.

Because heart disease is largely preventable and many risk factors can be reduced with healthy lifestyle changes. If you smoke, quit. Try to consume a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and processed foods. Aim to get 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Talk to your doctor about ways to further reduce your risk and control preexisting conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Some women may need medication or other interventions to help with health problems that don’t improve.

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