Heart Risk Factors for Women Versus Men

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Let’s take a look at how women’s risk factors for heart disease are different from men’s.

Diabetes. Diabetic women have a higher risk for heart disease than diabetic men. This is because the incidence of diabetes and its complications (including heart disease) is much higher in women. If you are a diabetic woman, your risk for heart disease is five to seven times normal, compared with a risk of only two to three times normal for a diabetic man. For you, proper heart sense means you should increase your physical activity and watch your diet to maintain a healthy body weight.

Overweight. Women have a higher heart disease risk from being overweight than men do. Recent studies indicate that being only 20 pounds overweight doubles your risk of heart disease. If you are overweight, I don’t want you to go on a diet. Instead, get physically active—it’s your most powerful weapon against fat—and begin eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, pasta, fish and lean poultry.  Eating this way is what I call “healthy heart nutrition” and it just makes sense. (See other blog entries for additional advice on cardiovascular nutrition.)

Cholesterol. Women have a higher risk for heart disease than men if they don’t have good cholesterol levels. More specifically, if they have have low levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) they increase their heart risk factors.

You probably already know that there are two types of cholesterol. LDL is the “bad” cholesterol, which oxidizes in your blood and forms the plaque that clogs arteries. HDL carries LDL out of your blood vessels before it can do its damage. Volumes of data have shown that a high LDL is a powerful risk factor for heart disease in men. But for women, the story is different. Recent research indicates that a low HDL, not a high LDL, is the more significant risk factor for a woman to develop heart disease. (This means that some women may need to increase HDL cholesterol levels.)

The good news is that HDL is sensitive to factors such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. If your HDL is low (less than 35 mg/dL) you can raise it by quitting smoking and dropping excess weight through a combination of smart eating, healthy heart nutrition, and physical activity such as walking and dancing. If you are postmenopausal, you might also consider estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), which raises HDL, lowers LDL, and has other beneficial effects on your heart. Have your HDL level checked six weeks after you start an HDL-raising program. Chances are you will see a change for the better.

High Triglycerides. When you get your cholesterol checked, I also want you to have your doctor check to see if you have healthy triglycerides levels. Triglycerides are another type of blood fat. A high triglyceride level is more dangerous for women than for men, so if your triglycerides are elevated (above 200 mg/dL), I want you to put some effort into lowering them, especially if you are a diabetic. This is because if you are a diabetic woman who also has high triglycerides, your risk of developing heart disease increases to 200 times normal. Please stop and think about this. You can lower your triglycerides using the powerful combination of exercise and weight control.

For more information on heart risk factors for women, visit www.drsinatra.com.

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