Your heart beats an average of between 60 and 100 times per minute—that’s 86,400 to 144,000 beats per day; 31,536,000 to 52,560,000 beats per year. If you live to be 80, your heart will have beaten several billion times before you leave the planet. For something so essential, people often don’t consciously think about their heartbeat or dwell on the health of their heart.
“Women are at a higher risk for heart disease [progressions or complications] than men for a number of reasons,” says Lara Oboler, MD, FACC, a New York-based physician who specializes in interventional cardiology. “We often have atypical symptoms—such as jaw pain, shortness of breath, or upper abdominal or back pain—that many doctors attribute to anxiety. In addition, women are more at risk than men to develop heart disease if they smoke or have diabetes or high blood pressure.”
CVS is a proud national sponsor of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women® movement to empower women to take charge of their heart health. Visit CVS.com/women to learn more about how CVS is supporting women’s heart health and to get details on how to schedule a free heart health screening at MinuteClinic during the month of February. While supplies last.
Even though cardiovascular disease is 80 precent preventable, it is the number one cause of death of American women—taking one of every three lives lost every year. Just unscoring the importance of making the health of the organ that fuels all of your bodily functions more front and center no matter your current stage of life. Here’s what you need from it and how to make sure it’s working optimally during life’s major milestones—today, tomorrow, and in the future—and make the most of every heartbeat.
In your late teens and 20s, the adulting begins, including getting your first full-time job. You’re exposed to unfamiliar stresses, a new schedule, and changes to your lifestyle. Even though you’re young and resilient, you’re not exempt from heart disease. “Believe it or not, one in 16 women aged 20 or older already has coronary artery disease,” says Dr. Oboler.
One of these reasons is stress: A 2021 study found that a high level of stress is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, and premature death. Combine that with a dollop of long work hours and a cup or two of prolonged sitting and you’re creating an environment that doesn’t best support your heart health. Sitting for eight of more hours a day, which can happen with a sedentary, 9-to-5 office job, was associated with an increased risk for CVD, according to study findings published in JAMA Cardiology.
In early adulthood, start regular screenings for cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and BMI.
While you can’t change your work schedule, moving more might be the best thing to help keep your heart healthy. Preliminary research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that five minutes of walking every half hour could possibly offset some of the risks, such as high blood pressure, associated with prolonged periods of sitting. And while that may seem like a lot to take out of your day, the researchers found some benefit when the 11 participants (we said it was preliminary) walked for a minute after sitting for an hour. The takeaway: Micro bouts of activity throughout the day might help negate the negative effects of prolonged sitting.
“You should also start getting regular health screenings to determine your four key heart-health numbers: total cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and body mass index,” says Angela Patterson, DNP, FAANP, vice president of CVS Health. “Heart health risk screenings can be done at a CVS MinuteClinic or with your primary-care provider.”
When you’re pregnant you body has to work harder than normal to pump blood, oxygen, and nutrients to you and your baby. This added pressure on your heart can cause issues such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, or preeclampsia (high blood pressure with signs of damage to another organ system, like the kidneys).
“Pregnancy has been described as a natural cardiovascular stress test,” Dr. Oboler says. “And because of conditions such as diabetes and blood pressure, as well as increasing maternal age, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of pregnancy-related mortality.”
If you are planning to get pregnant, focus on preventive cardiovascular health. Issues like high blood pressure are harder to control in pregnancy.
When you’re thinking of starting a family, both Patterson and Dr. Oboler recommend preconception counseling to assess the condition of your heart and your risk for disease. “Women with known heart disease should see a cardiologist prior to pregnancy,” Patterson says. And while you can’t do anything about your age or family history, you can control your lifestyle. “By making healthy choices, you can keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in check and reduce your risk for heart disease and heart attack,” she says. “This includes choosing healthy foods and drinks, keeping a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and not smoking or vaping.”
During pregnancy, continue with your healthy habits and visit your doctor regularly to screen for high cholesterol and make sure you’re at a healthy weight. “Pregnant women should also be screened for gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure,” Dr. Oboler says. High blood pressure affects one in every 12 to 17 pregnant women aged 20-44 years old in the U.S. and could impact your ability to get nutrients and oxygen to your baby. It also may cause a preterm delivery.
Postpartum, continue to monitor your blood pressure. “More than one in 10 women may experience high blood pressure in the year after childbirth,” Dr. Oboler says. What’s more, there may be a link between increased heart rate and/or blood pressure related to mental health disorders such as major depression, anxiety, or stress, so schedule a mental health visit with your healthcare provider if you’re feeling blue. And know that you’re not alone feeling this way; around one in every eight women experiences postpartum depression.
Get a free heart-health screening at a MinuteClinic location during the month of February.
While menopause itself doesn’t cause heart disease, the goings-on in your body can put you at higher risk for developing it. “In general, women develop CVD about a decade later than men, and the main reason is cholesterol,” Dr. Oboler says. That’s because estrogen is a cardioprotective agent, helping relax and dilate blood vessels while also regulating the level of bad cholesterol in the body. As the hormone’s levels drop off, which is what happens in menopause, your body’s ability to regulate cholesterol also wanes.
Talk to a provider about what may be driving elevated cholesterol levels or what tests or interventions may be appropriate for you.
During this transitional time (which can be between seven and 14 years), maintain your healthy lifestyle habits and establish a regular schedule of screenings. “It continues to be critically important to know your heart-health numbers and to get check-ups for blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol, and blood glucose,” Patterson says.
If you find yourself with “borderline” cholesterol levels, one helpful screening test for women is called a calcium score, Dr. Oboler adds. “Calcium scores are obtained by taking a low-radiation CAT scan of the coronary arteries, and the score reveals whether or not plaque has already started to form in the coronary arteries,” she says.
You’ve done your due diligence in the workforce, and now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself—right? Even if you’re no longer required to punch the clock, your heart may not know the difference.
“Lifestyle choices play an important role in disease prevention, but sometimes even patients who ‘do everything right’ still need a little help,” Dr. Oboler says. “Genetics play a very important role in heart disease, and having high blood pressure or high cholesterol isn’t necessarily your fault. The best way to prevent an issue is to stay on top of your numbers and address anything trending in the wrong direction immediately.”
Establish a heart-health screening schedule such as this one, outlined by Patterson, as you move into your golden years:
Check your cholesterol every five years.
Check your blood pressure every two years.
Check your blood glucose every three years.
Check your waist circumference regularly.
Check your BMI at every healthcare visit.
Also, stay healthy by being social: Isolation and loneliness increase the risk of heart disease in senior women by as much as 27 percent, according to research. Join a walking group, have a weekly dinner with your family, or start a book club. Celebrate having hit your life’s milestones together, and dance to the beat of your ever-vigilant heart for years to come.