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The Heart Truth - Campaign Materials
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The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women

Women at Risk

Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They also can increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight, physical inactivity, and diabetes. Research shows that more than 95 percent of those who die from heart disease have at least one of these major risk factors.

Some risk factors, such as age and family history of early heart disease, can't be changed. For women, age becomes a risk factor at 55. Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. Another reason for the increasing risk is that middle age is a time when women tend to develop other risk factors for heart disease.

Family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can't be changed. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself.

While certain risk factors cannot be changed, it is important to realize that you do have control over many others. Regardless of your age, background, or health status, you can lower your risk of heart disease—and it doesn't have to be complicated. Protecting your heart can be as simple as taking a brisk walk, whipping up a good vegetable soup, or getting the support you need to maintain a healthy weight.

Every Risk Factor Counts
Some women believe that doing just one healthy thing will take care of all of their heart disease risk. For example, they may think that if they walk or swim regularly, they can still smoke and stay fairly healthy. Wrong! To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each risk factor you have. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important.

Other women may wonder, "If I have just one risk factor for heart disease—say, I'm overweight or I have high blood cholesterol—aren't I more or less 'safe'?" Absolutely not. Having just one risk factor can double a woman's chance of developing heart disease.

The "Multiplier Effect"
But having more than one risk factor is especially serious, because risk factors tend to "gang up" and worsen each other's effects. Having two risk factors increases the chance of developing heart disease fourfold. Having three or more risk factors increases the chance more than tenfold.

The fact is, most women in midlife already have heart disease risk factors. Thirty-three percent of women ages 40 to 60 have one risk factor for heart disease that they can change. Another 31 percent of women in midlife have two modifiable risk factors, while 17 percent have three or more modifiable risk factors.

Women of color have higher rates of some risk factors. More than 85 percent of African American women in midlife are overweight or obese, while 52 percent have high blood pressure, and 14 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes. Among Hispanic women in midlife, 78 percent are overweight or obese, while more than 10 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes.

The message is clear: Every woman needs to take her heart disease risk seriously—and take action now to reduce that risk.

Did You Know?
Many women think that breast cancer is a bigger threat than heart disease. But the leading causes of death for American women in the year 2004* were:

Heart Disease 332,313
Cancer (all types) 265,022
  Lung 67,838
  Breast 40,539
  Colorectal 26,762
  Pancreatic 15,815
  Ovarian 14,593
  Uterine 6,906
  Cervical 3,804
  Others 88,765
Stroke 91,487
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 64,409
Alzheimer's Disease 46,954
Accidents 38,903
Diabetes 37,771
Pneumonia/Influenza 33,902
*Most recent year for which data are available.
Table of Contents Next: You and Your Doctor: A Heart Healthy Partnership

Last Updated: February 29, 2012

The Heart Truth, its logo, The Red Dress, and Heart Disease Doesn't Care What You Wear—It's the #1 Killer of Women are registered trademarks of HHS.
Red Dress and Red Dress Collection are service marks of HHS.
National Wear Red Day is a registered trademark of HHS and AHA.

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