For many people Valentine’s Day is about chocolate and red roses. Oh, and about spending time with the one you love. But this year, please also take a serious look at your heart health.

Heart disease kills an Australian woman every hour of every day. It’s the leading cause of death in women over the age of 40, and is especially prevalent after menopause.

Why is this I hear you ask? Well, there are many reasons.

your heart health

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According to the World Health Organisation cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women is often unrecognised, and therefore undiagnosed. In part this is because we show different symptoms to men. Furthermore, women are less likely to seek medical help (possibly because they don’t recognise the symptoms) and therefore may not get appropriate care until it is too late.

Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in women over 40, and is especially prevalent after menopauseClick To Tweet

Causes of heart disease

There are two groups of factors that cause heart disease. The ones you can’t control – your age, your ethnicity and your family history. And then there are the factors you can control. The lifestyle factors. If you can relate to any of these, your risk of heart disease is greater:

  •  if you smoke
  • are overweight
  • have high cholesterol
  • are diabetic
  • have high blood pressure
  • are physically inactive.

Estrogen levels and menopause

Research shows that estrogen also plays a role with heart disease, because estrogen withdrawal has a detrimental effect on cardiovascular function and metabolism. Menopause compounds many traditional CVD risk factors, including changes in body fat distribution, reduced glucose tolerance, increased blood pressure, vascular inflammation and more. Estrogen is believed to have a positive effect on the inner layer of artery wall, helping to keep blood vessels flexible, and when it declines, so does this flexibility.

Despite the benefits of estrogen, the American Heart Association recommends against using postmenopausal hormone therapy to reduce the risk of heart disease because some studies have shown it appears to not reduce the risk.

Estrogen decline isn’t the only reason women face a higher cardiovascular disease risk after reaching menopause. Our bodies face many changes during menopause, including rising blood pressure, an increase in LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, negative changes in triglycerides. Aren’t we lucky?

Symptoms of heart disease

There are many symptoms of heart disease. The most common is angina or chest pain, but not everyone with heart disease will get this.It’s important to realise that most women won’t have chest pain – which is why many women sadly don’t realise they are having a heart attack until it’s too late.

Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • a faster heartbeat
  • weakness or dizziness
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • tingling feelings in your arms.

And yes, these can be symptoms of many, many things. However if in doubt, get it checked out.

Make an appointment to talk to your GP.

If you’re having chest pains call triple zero (000) or your emergency services number. Don’t dilly dally. Trust me, an ambulance officer would rather your chest pains be nothing than for you to have a heart attack and die.

How to improve your heart health

Following a healthy lifestyle is the easiest way to reduce your risk for heart disease.

Take care of your heart by undertaking regular exercise, eating well and reducing or quitting unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Eating the right food means a diet that includes:

  • at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit every day
  • whole grains
  • good quality dairy
  • fish, poultry and red meat (not too much red meat)
  • good fats such as nuts, avocado, olive oil
  • very few sugary and/or processed foods
  • limit alcohol and caffeine

We should also be aiming for 150 minutes of physical activity every week – approximately 30 minutes a day. Ideally however, we should be doing 60 minutes of exercise a day to help prevent heart disease. This can include swimming, walking, yoga, cycling and dancing. Make sure you include weight bearing exercises such as walking and climbing stairs. Yoga is also a fantastic weight bearing exercise for older bodies – it won’t bulk you up but it will improve flexibility, balance, bone density, endurance, muscle mass, agility and energy level. It’s my new favourite thing!

Finally, if you have ANY doubt about your heart health, please, please, please see a doctor. It could save your life.

Thank you.

your heart health

Image: Shutterstock

A version of this originally appeared on The Cook’s Notebook.