Women and heart disease

Did you know that women are three times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer?

In the years following the menopause, your risk of getting heart disease rises significantly. But you can take simple steps to protect yourself.

1. Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked

If you’re over 40, ask your GP about having a health check to assess your risk of developing heart disease. This would include checking your blood pressure and cholesterol level.

If your blood pressure or cholesterol level is higher than it should be, this increases your risk of heart disease. Your GP can suggest lifestyle changes or, if necessary, prescribe medication to reduce your blood pressure or cholesterol.

Read more about the NHS Health Check for people aged 40-74.

2. Stop smoking to protect your heart

You’re twice as likely to have a heart attack if you smoke. Over the past few decades, men have increasingly quit smoking but women haven’t been stopping smoking as much. In fact, more young women now smoke than young men. Stopping smoking will lessen your chances of developing heart disease.

Find out how the NHS can help you stop smoking.

3. Do more exercise to prevent heart disease

Only about one woman in four in England does enough physical activity to protect her heart. Try to do more exercise, including regular aerobic exercise such as walking and swimming. To protect your heart, you need to do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) every week.

Read more about how to get fit.

4. Lose weight if you need to

About six in every ten women in England are either overweight or obese. Carrying excess weight puts a strain on your heart, and you’re more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which also increase the risk of heart disease. 

Use our BMI calculator to find out if you are overweight.

Read more about how to lose weight.

5. Change shape to reduce your risk of heart disease

Your shape matters as well as your weight. Like many women in the 40-60 age group, you may be apple shaped, where excess weight settles around your waist. Being apple shaped puts you at higher risk of heart disease than being pear shaped, where excess weight is concentrated on the hips. Aim for a waistline of less than 80cm (31.5 inches).

Read more about why your body shape matters.

6. Drink moderately to help your heart

Drinking a little alcohol regularly may be good for your heart, but make sure you stay within the recommended limits. Drinking more will increase your risk of heart problems. Heart healthy drinking for women is one or two units of alcohol a day. If you drink more than this, you’ll increase your risk of heart disease. Too much alcohol, or binge-drinking, can damage the heart muscle leading to abnormal heart rhythms or heart failure.

Read more about alcohol units and how to cut down your drinking.

7. Balance your diet

Eat healthily and be especially careful not to eat more salt than is recommended (no more than 6g a day) and to cut down on the amount of saturated fat you eat.

Read more about how to cut down on salt and saturated fat and have a healthy diet.

8. Don’t rely on HRT to stave off heart disease

Doctors used to think that using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopausal symptoms also protected women against heart disease. Research now suggests that HRT isn’t heart protective and, as with all drug treatments, there are side effects. Take HRT if you need it to relieve menopausal hot flushes and night sweats, but don’t expect it to help your heart.

Read more about HRT.

9. Manage your stress

Some studies have suggested that stress can contribute to heart disease. If you feel under a lot of stress, it's important to learn how to relax. There are some simple techniques you can learn to help you cope with stress. If you feel so stressed and anxious that it's affecting your daily life, your GP can help you deal with it.

Read more about how to manage stress.

Page last reviewed: 26/11/2012

Next review due: 26/11/2014

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