Breast cancer gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to women’s health, but heart disease is actually the leading cause of death among women. And with the American Heart Association’s new numbers for blood pressure rates, more women than ever are facing the realities of managing high blood pressure.
So what does all this mean for women 50 and better?
You are in the best, most vibrant years of your life. Keep all your glorious years – and keep your years glorious – by being pro-active about your health.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults have a cholesterol screening every four to six years after age 20. Those who have already been diagnosed with high cholesterol or who have other risk factors for heart disease may need to get tested much more frequently, perhaps as often as every six months.*
Those “risk factors” include a family history of heart disease, smoking, not exercising regularly, being overweight, and… being post-menopausal. Truth is, we may consider heart disease a “men’s problem,” but 10 years after menopause, a woman’s risk of heart disease equals that of a man’s of the same age.
What happened to my heart health? Estrogen may provide natural protection against heart disease by keeping blood vessels within the artery wall flexible, allowing blood to flow easily. After menopause, some of that protection is lost: blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol rise, while HDL (good) cholesterol declines or remains the same. Fats in the blood called triglycerides also increase, potentially restricting blood flow.
Yes. High cholesterol doesn’t generally have symptoms, so your levels could be high without you knowing it. The only way to tell if your levels are unhealthily high may be with a blood test known as a lipid profile or lipid panel. Cholesterol tests take four measures:
A single blood draw can generally test all your levels, though for a full panel workup, you may be asked to fast for 9 to 12 hours before the test is done.
While getting a bit of blood drawn twice a decade probably doesn’t sound too arduous, for those who should or want to test their cholesterol levels more often, there are several at-home tests available.
Before you start down the DIY path, get your levels checked by a doctor so you know if you need immediate intervention or just frequent testing (or if you can wait 4-6 years), and to establish a baseline. Since not all the tests measure all the levels, your doc can also help you decide what levels need regular testing, if any.
As you might imagine, there’s variation in the types of tests, costs, and accuracy of results, so you’ll want to do your research.
While the tests themselves may be fairly accurate, if the test instructions are hard to follow or the results are hard to read, you can end up with incorrect information. And ultimately, cholesterol is just one piece of the heart-health puzzle: genetics, gender, diet, exercise, stress levels, age, nicotine use, medications, all sorts of factors are involved, so these tests are never a replacement for a doctor’s advice and oversight.
Finally, a regular cholesterol screening is great, whether done at a doc’s or in your dining room. While there’s not much we can do about our genetic lottery or the poor decisions of our youth, there are things women over 50 can do to decrease risk: healthy diet, not smoking, regular exercise, weight management, stress relief. Here’s to your healthy heart!
*The information in this article is for education only and should never replace treatment by a health care professional.