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Surveys show fewer than one in 10 women perceive heart disease as their greatest health threat. But it’s the nation’s number one killer, and women are its prime target. One in 10 women ages 45 to 64 has some form of heart disease, and this increases to one in four women after age 65. Stroke is the number three killer of women.

Every year, more women die of heart disease and stroke than men. The overall lifetime risk of dying of breast cancer for women is 3 percent. For cardiovascular disease or stroke in women, it’s nearly 50 percent.

The risk for heart attack and stroke increases with age, especially after menopause. But atherosclerosis, the condition in which plaque — thick, hard cholesterol deposits — forms in artery walls to constrict or block blood flow and cause chest pain or even a heart attack, starts in the teens and 20s. That’s why it’s important to start protecting yourself from heart disease early.

Check your risk

First, you should get your blood cholesterol and blood pressure checked. The higher either of them is, the greater your risk for heart disease or a heart attack. A lipoprotein profile — a blood test done after a 9- to 12-hour fast — will measure the fats in your blood to indicate the levels of HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well as triglycerides, another form of fat in the blood.

In general, you’re at low risk if your total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dL; LDL, less than 100 mg/dL; HDL, greater than 40 mg/dL; and triglycerides, less than 150 mg/dL.

Normal blood pressure is 119/79 or lower. People with prehypertension, a condition that indicates high blood pressure could develop in the future, have blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is 140/90 and higher.

Your doctor may advise you to make diet and lifestyle changes before prescribing medication. The following habits can prevent heart disease:

Lose weight

Being overweight affects blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It also increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, a condition in which your body can’t use insulin to help convert food to energy.
By bringing your weight to its optimal level, you’ll lower your cholesterol level and blood pressure and make your body more sensitive to the effects of insulin.

A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher is considered overweight. To calculate your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 703. Divide the result by your height in inches, then divide that result by your height in inches again.
Don’t worry if you need to lose a lot of weight. Even losing 5 to 10 pounds can make a difference.

Quit smoking

Smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack as nonsmokers. The toxins in cigarette smoke can shrink coronary arteries, making it tough for blood to circulate. Seek out support and discuss quitting with your Brown & Toland provider.

Get active

At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week does more than help you burn calories. It can reduce your risk for heart disease by raising your HDL and reducing LDL.

Change your fats

Switch the fat in your diet from butter and other artery-clogging saturated fats to heart-healthy, cholesterol-busting fat — such as liquid margarine, tub margarine, olive oil and canola oil. But use them sparingly. Also, limit full-fat dairy products, fatty meats, palm oil and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Eat your fruits and veggies

Eat plenty of produce — at least 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily. Studies link diets high in fruits and vegetables with a reduced risk for heart disease and high blood pressure.

Fiber up

Oatmeal, whole-grain bread and other whole-grain foods are excellent sources of soluble fiber, which helps reduce LDL cholesterol. The USDA recommends for adults about 6- to 9-ounceequivalents of grain per day, of which half should be whole grain.

Drink alcohol in moderation

For women, that means no more than one drink per day, the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer, 4–5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof spirits.