Chicago resident Susan Bennett was 40 years old when she gave birth to her second child, a son. One night when Ben was three weeks old, she nursed him and put him back into his bassinet.
When Ben started crying a few minutes later, she tried to get up, but fell back on the bed unconscious. When Susan’s husband, Chris, realized what had happened, he called 9-1-1.
Susan—a relatively young woman in good health—had had a heart attack. Paramedics were able to restart her heart with an external defibrillator, and she had an angiogram that night. She spent three weeks in the hospital recovering.
“I have no memory of that day or evening, and a lot of that time in the hospital is a blur,” she says. “But my husband said that when he came home that night, I was complaining of some pains in my left side. I’d talked to a nurse about it that day, and she assumed that something was just wrong with my breast because I was nursing. She told me to take an aspirin and call later if it was still bothering me. That aspirin possibly saved my life.”
Bennett admits that she was under a lot of stress in the months before her heart attack. “I had two kids in 18 months, my father was diagnosed with a fast-progressing terminal illness, my job went away, I had to look for a new job, and I bought a new house,” says Susan. Her doctors think that the stress of being pregnant on top of everything else may have been the final thing to push her body over the edge to a heart attack.
All in all, Bennett was lucky. The blockage was limited to one artery and caused little damage to the heart muscle itself. Today, at 51, she is healthy and committed to sharing her story with other women.
THE BIGGEST RISK
Ask a woman what she’s worried about dying from, and she’s likely to say breast cancer. But it’s heart disease that is the biggest killer of women, and your lifestyle in your 30s, 40s, and 50s (and beyond) can help reduce your risk of developing it now and later in life.
Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, family history, sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet, says Joan Briller, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Program for Women at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
No, you can’t control your family history. But there are plenty of things you can control to reduce your risk and help you live healthier—as well as modeling positive habits for your children. “Lifestyle changes can help you avoid developing plaque in your arteries that cause heart attacks and strokes,” says Annabelle Volgman, M.D., director of the Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Although the symptoms of a heart attack for women are sometimes different than for men, the lifestyle practices that prevent heart disease are the same for both genders. And while women have a reputation of being the caregivers, they often don’t make time to take care of themselves. To help women incorporate heart-healthy habits into their lives, here are some useful reminders:
Moms on the move.
The general recommendation for heart health is 150 minutes of moderate exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise) each week. That may sound like a lot, but it works out to five 30-minute walks each week. Sound overwhelming? Remember, even mini-workouts, such as a 10-minute walk after lunch or some enthusiastic vacuuming, count toward that 150 minute total.
The pressure is mounting!
“Probably the big risk factor for heart disease for women is hypertension, and, lifestyle-wise, there are a lot of things you can do for high blood pressure,” says Briller. Monitor your blood pressure, and if it’s on the high side, talk to your doctor. Losing weight, lowering your salt intake, and becoming more active can help keep your pressure in the healthy range.
Even Superwoman (especially Superwoman!) has to manage her stress.
If you’re like most women, you feel stressed or overwhelmed at least occasionally. Even if you can’t ditch the stressors, you can figure out how to manage the stress better—and that will reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
“The key change for me was to really recognize the stress of my crazy lifestyle and the toll it takes, and try to make adjustments for it,” says Bennett. “I started realizing that I can’t do it all, and learned how to prioritize and say ‘no.’ It was more of a psychological change than a physical one.”
That’s what friends are for.
If you’re a busy woman (and aren’t most women?), spending time with your friends may slip to the bottom of your to-do list. But research shows that people with strong social connections are less likely to develop heart disease. “Connectivity is really important in terms of helping with stress,” says Briller. So be sure to schedule in girls’ nights, or meet up with a friend to go on a walk or even run errands together.
Finally, remember that while you can’t control everything, you can help improve your chances of living a long, healthy life by the choices you make. “As a woman, you’re more likely to die of heart disease than the top three cancers combined,” says Bennett. “Pay attention to your heart . . . know that heart disease is a risk, and push your doctor if something doesn’t feel right to you.”
Kelly James-Enger is a health writer and certified personal trainer whose heart—and schedule—is full, thanks in part to her active family. She lives in Downers Grove, Illinois.