According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year. That’s approximately one woman every minute. Yet, some studies say many women are unaware that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
More women (and men) should be concerned about preventing heart disease and taking action to reduce their risk.
Women gain some natural protection against heart disease from hormones. However, once we hit menopause — even if we use hormone replacement therapy — our risk rises dramatically. High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease and poor diet and excessive alcohol use can likewise increase a person’s risk.
So what can we do to prevent heart disease?
1. Stop smoking. This is the number one risk enhancer. It compounds any other risk factor you may have and makes your chance of heart attack or stroke rise dramatically. If you quit smoking your risk of heart disease returns to that of a nonsmoker in just two years!
2. Get in shape. Even a minimal amount of exercise is better than none. Aim for 40 minutes a day, most days of the week, but keep in mind that even 10 minutes of walking a day beats nothing at all.
3. Work on eating a balanced diet. There is much written on this and some conflicting data, but most experts will agree that a largely plant-based diet, with lean meats, fish and whole grains are the pillars of heart healthy eating.
4. Take the right vitamins. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that women who took multivitamins for more than three years had a lower risk of death from heart disease than women who did not take them (all other factors being equal). This evidence suggests that taking the right vitamins does confer a benefit to heart health. For example, omega 3 fatty acids (typically found in fish oil and flaxseed) contribute to heart health.
Most multivitamins provide people with many antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and D, among others.
But multivitamins that include supplemental vitamin A may pose a problem. Vitamin A may increase cancer and osteoporosis risk. So what is a person to do? You don't want to take a vitamin to prevent heart disease and put yourself at risk for other serious diseases.
Talk to your doctor to determine the combination of vitamins that best suits your needs based on your diet, lifestyle and health history. This may include a range of vitamins including vitamins E, D, C, magnesium and certain B vitamins in varied amounts. You can also consider a personalized multivitamin tailored to your needs that will give you just what you need without potentially causing harm.
Arielle Miller Levitan, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine physician and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and has served as chief medical resident for the Northwestern University McGraw Medical Center’s Evanston Hospital Program and as a clinical instructor for its medical school. She has a special interest in women’s health and preventive medicine and currently practices general internal medicine on the North Shore of Chicago, where she teaches medical students on-site. She enjoys cooking, cardio tennis, running, being a soccer mom (sometimes) and spending time with her three kids and husband (also a doctor of internal medicine).
Romy Block, MD, is a board-certified specialist in endocrine and metabolism medicine, member of American Thyroid Association, and the cofounder of Vous Vitamin, LLC. She is the author of The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health. She attended Tufts University and Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine. She completed residency training in internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital—North Shore-LIJ and did a fellowship at New York University. She practices on the North Shore of Chicago, where she specializes in thyroid disorders and pituitary diseases. She enjoys travel, food and wine, working out with her personal trainer and spending time with her husband (a pulmonary and sleep specialist) and their three boys.