Heart health risk factors for women over age 50: ‘Don’t ignore new symptoms,’ experts warn

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February is American Heart Month — a good time to know what’s at stake in terms of your cardiovascular health.

For women over age 50, a few factors regarding heart health deserve a little more attention, according to experts.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in women, according to Northwell Health cardiologist Dr. Stacey Rosen, who is based in New York.

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Nearly 45% of women over 20 years old are actually living with some form of CVD, Rosen told Fox News Digital.

Gender-specific risk factors include menstrual history and adverse pregnancy outcomes, she said. 

woman gets heart checked by doctor

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, according to experts. For American Heart Month in February, there are risk factors women need to know about — and how to handle them.   (iStock)

“Other sex-specific risk factors include anxiety and depression, increased risk due to certain treatments for breast cancer, and rheumatologic conditions,” she said.

Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer of WebMD and based in Washington, D.C., also told Fox News Digital about some primary risk factors for women age 50 and older — starting with menopause.

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“The decrease in estrogen levels after menopause is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons [we see an] increase in heart attacks around this age.”

High blood pressure and high cholesterol also often increase with age and can become “more challenging to control,” Whyte said.

woman gets heart checked

Gender-specific heart disease risk factors include menopause, menstrual history and adverse pregnancy outcomes, according to experts. (iStock)

“Changes in cholesterol levels, including increases in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and decreases in ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, can elevate heart disease risk,” he said.

Diabetes risk also increases with age, which significantly raises the chance of heart disease, Whyte said, as do other health factors such as obesity, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.

“Lack of physical activity can increase the risk of heart disease and other co-morbid conditions,” he added.

Symptoms worth noticing

As women often experience different cardiac symptoms than men, the “classic chest pain that radiates down the left arm” may not occur, Whyte said.

Women may instead notice unusual or extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and indigestion.

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Jaw, neck and upper back pain are often overlooked, as they often occur without the chest pain associated with heart attacks, according to experts.

“The symptoms women experience with heart disease can often be different,” Rosen of New York said. 

“Don’t ignore new symptoms like fatigue, breathlessness or indigestion.”

woman with pain in chest

Symptoms of heart problems in women can appear as unusual or severe fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and indigestion. (iStock)

There are several routine exams to monitor heart health, Whyte noted.

Blood pressure screenings are “crucial,” the doctor said, as “hypertension is a silent killer.”

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An annual cholesterol profile check will monitor levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol), LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglyceride (lipid fats).

“The key is not just total cholesterol, but also LDL,” Whyte said.

Cholesterol test

An annual cholesterol profile check will help monitor HDL (“good” cholesterol), LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglyceride levels. (iStock)

Blood glucose tests can also be helpful in monitoring diabetes, which is a “significant risk factor for heart disease,” Whyte said, as well as a coronary calcium score to determine risk.

People with symptoms or significant risk factors can check for heart rhythm abnormalities through an electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG), experts recommend.

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It’s “important to have a primary care clinician who knows you well and can help determine the need for further evaluation,” Rosen added.

“Develop a trusting, longitudinal relationship with a primary care clinician,” she recommended. “This is the time to be a ‘good’ patient. Ask questions about prevention strategies and cardiovascular testing that is appropriate for you.”

Strategies to keep the heart happy

The majority of CVD is preventable through lifestyle changes, heightened awareness and education, Rosen said — which means that “your heart health is in your hands.”

“Know your numbers — cholesterol, weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar — as all are important risk factors that can be modified,” she said.

woman standing on scale

Health factors such as obesity, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle increase heart disease risk, experts said. (iStock)

For day-to-day upkeep, Whyte listed several foods that are known to promote a healthy heart.

These include fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants; whole grains for fiber and nutrients; lean protein like fish and poultry; nuts and seeds for healthy fats; legumes for fiber and protein; and coffee and tea for antioxidants.

Limiting sugary foods and drinks will help prevent obesity and diabetes.

Among the foods to avoid are saturated and trans fats, which are found in red meat, butter, cheese and processed foods, experts said.

Steering clear of excess salt will also help avoid high blood pressure — while limiting sugary foods and drinks will help prevent obesity and diabetes.

Processed and junk foods are “generally high in unhealthy fats, sugars and salt” and therefore should also be avoided, Whyte added.

heart healthy foods

Saturated and trans fats found in red meat, butter, cheese and processed foods should be avoided to promote heart health, Whyte said. (iStock)

Women over age 50 should partake in regular physical activity, which involves at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of “vigorous activity” each week, he recommended.

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“Start anywhere,” he advised. Do “10 [minutes] a day or 4,000 steps a day … and slowly increase. Don’t get discouraged thinking you can’t do 150 [minutes].”

Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and exercise will also help ward off heart complications, as well as quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake and managing stress.

Woman with neck pain

It’s crucial for women over age 50 to prioritize their sleep and stress management, one expert told Fox News Digital.  (iStock)

Whyte suggested women should try stress-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, yoga or deep breathing, and should also get adequate sleep.

“Aim for seven to nine hours per night, as poor sleep can cause chronic inflammation,” he said.

Rosen agreed that while being mindful of daily lifestyle choices like eating healthy foods and exercising is important, it’s also crucial for women over 50 to prioritize their sleep and stress management.

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“Speak to your clinician to learn of the advances that have been made to assist in adhering to a healthy lifestyle,” she said. 

“For example, we can manage issues with sleep disorders better than ever before. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

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