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Heart disease health centre

Women and heart attacks: Lowering your risk

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Heart attacks are often thought of as a health issue for men, but by middle age - women are at just as big a risk.

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease (CHD). It's a type of cardiovascular disease (CVD) that includes all diseases of the heart and circulation.

"CVD kills as many women as it does men - that's over a quarter of men and women," says senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation Emily Reeve, "and CHD kills nearly three times more women than breast cancer."

Looking at the statistics it's worrying that some women don't really realise they may be at risk of heart disease and heart attack. The good news is there's a lot you can do to protect your heart and lower your risk.

Be realistic about risk

If you find out your risk factors, you'll be in a better position to protect yourself. They include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, being overweight, having diabetes or a family history of heart disease.

"It's really important for people to know their risk factors so that they can act on them or have appropriate treatment if necessary. For example, if someone was found to have high blood pressure they might need to take medications," says Emily.

People in England aged between 40 and 74 without a pre-existing condition can get a health check with their GP.

"Think of your NHS Health Check as being your 'midlife MOT'. It checks that some of your body's most important systems are all running smoothly. Among other things, your blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI, will all be checked and your results given to you," Emily adds.

Your GP will give you help and advice on giving up smoking and losing weight.

Get moving

The benefits of keeping active and exercising can't be underestimated. Regular exercise will lower your blood pressure and help you lose weight. In 2015, researchers at the University of Oxford analysing the Million Women Study found middle aged women could significantly cut their risk of heart disease, by around 20%, by strenuous exercise two or three times a week or other exercise or activities four to six times a week, when compared to women who were inactive.

Dr Miranda Armstrong, the study's lead author and physical activity epidemiologist says: "Becoming active to improve heart health doesn't have to be a burden for inactive middle-aged women. In the Million Women study, taking activity a few times a week was associated with lower risks than inactivity, and more frequent activity didn't reduce risks further. Activities may not necessarily need to be sports or exercise at the gym, because even everyday activities such as gardening and walking were associated with significantly lower risks in these women."

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