5 ways for women to protect their heart health

By Jen Christensen, CNN | 1/25/2016, 4:15 p.m.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. It's especially of concern for women, because their symptoms can ...
Woman exercising CDC/Amanda Mills

Being overweight is hard on your heart. To lose weight, aim for 60 to 90 minutes of exercise a day, according to Dr. Carol Ma, a cardiologist at Florida Hospital in Orlando.

"I tell my patients you should have a BMI that's less than 25 and a waist that measures less than 35. That's pretty specific, but that's what you need for a healthy heart," Ma said.

Raise a glass -- and maybe a carrot -- to your heart

A drink a day can keep the heart doctor away. If you drink (don't start for a healthier heart), Mattina suggests one alcoholic beverage is enough (for the guys it's two). Any more can stress your heart.

A drink, by the way, is not an extra-large tumbler. It's 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.

This is not just limited to red wine, which does have heart-healthy antioxidants. Any alcoholic drink can increase levels of "good" cholesterol and limit artery damage. Alcohol can also help you relax.

Eating healthy is also essential; watch refined sugar, salt and fat and eat lots of fruits and vegetables (in the 4.5 cup range).

Keep a close eye on salt. Most Americans eat too much and over 75% of it comes from packaged foods or from eating out.

Ma also tells her patients to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids like what you find in fish.

If you're looking for suggestions, the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines give ideas for following the Mediterranean diet, which is particularly good for your heart.

Quit smoking

"This is No. 1 on my list," Mattina said, and Ma agreed.

Mattina said when she sees a young patient who has a heart attack, 90% admit to being smokers. It's a little known fact, but most smokers die from heart disease long before they'll get lung cancer.

Smoking can create blood clots, decreases your levels of good cholesterol, makes it harder to exercise and can raise your blood pressure temporarily, none of which is good for your heart.

Don't let your doctor be lonely

Get screened for heart disease. Regular screening can catch risks early and prevent future problems

The tests you need depend on your age, how much you exercise, your diet and family history (if your parents or siblings have heart problems, you're at risk).

The American Heart Association suggests everyone start monitoring their heart health by age 20. Your doctor should check your blood pressure, your weight and your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. You may want a more comprehensive check, which typically looks at your BMI, your waist circumference, the electrical activity in your heart and you'll undergo a carotid intima-media thickness test. Essentially, the two major arteries in your neck are screened for signs of hardening (an early sign of disease). A carotid and peripheral arterial disease screening looks for blockages in your legs, neck and arms. Your blood sugar is measured and your lipid profiles are tested, too.

High blood pressure greatly increases your chance of having heart problems. If your blood pressure is above 120/80mm, you may want more regular checks. Blood pressure can be controlled through medication or a better diet and exercise.

Starting at age 45, get your blood glucose levels checked. High blood glucose levels -- a sign of Type 2 diabetes -- can lead to heart disease and stroke.

"We do a lot of sick care in medicine these days," Mattina said. "I think we need to be more aggressive and look for potential problems before they happen because what we generally have now isn't enough."

For women, it's especially important to know the signs of heart trouble, as they can be different from men's.

Classic chest pain is common with women as it is with men, but not all women feel it. Women may have a sensation in their neck or jaw, feel palpitations, weakness, fatigue, a sense of dread -- or classic symptoms that can be confused with gastrointestinal disease including vomiting, nausea and indigestion.

If you've got any of these concerns, get checked right away, a delay in treatment significantly reduces your chances of survival.