Did you know that a heart attack strikes someone in America every 34 seconds—and that many of these victims are women? In fact, according to the American Heart Association, heart attacks are the #1 killer of women.

Most people I share this with find it surprising: it's so often thought that men are the ones who suffer from heart attacks. But it can happen to women, too. And it does.

And that may be why, when women have a heart attack, they never think that's what is actually happening to them—why 50% of them never call 911.

Signs of a Heart Attack—in Women
If you experience any or all of these signs, call 911 immediately, says the American Heart Association:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with, or without, chest discomfort. (It's been described as the feeling of running a marathon without actually moving at all.) Other signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, dizziness, nausea/vomiting, or lightheadedness. (Some women say it feels like they have the flu.)
What All Women Should Do for a Healthier Heart - Valerie - Final

But on to more positive news: so much can be done to help reduce the risk of a heart attack—and keep your heart healthy. Where to start? Follow these 8 simple, do-able tips; I try to follow them every day as heart disease runs in my family:

  1. Take a short, 10-minute walk after each meal. For heart health, you need to exercise at least 30 minutes every day—and breaking it into do-able time chunks like this will make you stick with it more. Sure, you can always do 30 minutes on the elliptical, run outdoors, bike, swim, play tennis, or do whatever you like to do—but consider that extra exercise. Just getting into the habit of walking after your meals is not only good for your heart, it's good for your digestion, too.

  2. Eat brown rice, broccoli, and beans. Well, this isn't all you should eat, but plant-based foods are better for the heart in general. They're low in fat and high in key nutrients like vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid. Other foods with these nutrients include: pistachios, garlic, and sunflower seeds (B6); oysters, mussels, fortified cereals, tofu, low-fat dairy, meat, and eggs (B12); and dark, leafy greens, asparagus, citrus fruits, peas, lentils, and avocado (folic acid). Taking a daily multivitamin like Centrum® Silver® Women 50+ will also help ensure you're getting enough of these key nutrients.

  3. Meditate, if you can, for just 10 minutes. Some people like to do it when they wake up—or right before they go to bed. It involves sitting quietly and shutting out the outside world—while focusing thoughts inward or on a particular image or sound. A recent study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, found that people with coronary artery disease who took a regular meditation class had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. (Experts believe this has a lot to do with the fact that all participants had a drop in blood pressure, stress, and anger—risk factors for heart disease.) Even if you don't have coronary artery disease, you can benefit from meditation, too.

  4. Bake, broil, or grill fish—twice a week. A study in the journal Circulation♦♦ backed up the American Heart Association's recommendation to eat at least two servings of fish (particularly fish high in omega-3 fatty acids), a week. Omega-3-rich fish include mackerel, tuna, salmon, sturgeon, bluefish, anchovy, sardines, and trout.

    It seems that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish help to lower triglyceride levels by as much as 20 to 50 percent♦♦♦. High levels of triglycerides—a type of fat found in your blood—can raise your risk of heart disease and may be a sign of metabolic syndrome. (Metabolic syndrome is a combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, too much fat around the waist, low HDL "good" cholesterol, and high triglycerides. Metabolic syndrome increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.)

  5. Don't smoke—and avoid secondhand smoke. Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to narrowing of the arteries (a condition called atherosclerosis) that can ultimately lead to a heart attack. Also, the nicotine in cigarette smoke makes your heart work harder by narrowing your blood vessels and increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke also replaces some of the oxygen in your blood. This increases your blood pressure by forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen.

  6. Limit Danishes—and French fries. Not only can they cause weight gain (a risk factor for heart disease), they're also chockfull of saturated and trans fats. Both of these fats increase your risk of coronary artery disease by raising low-density lipoprotein levels (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol. Other sources of saturated fat include: red meat and high-fat dairy products. Other sources of trans fats include: deep-fried foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarine, and crackers (it's often listed as "partially hydrogenated fat" on labels).

  7. Eat whole, fresh food as often as possible. And when you can't, opt for packaged foods marked low-sodium. Packaged foods—like cold cuts, soups, and chips—as well as foods served in restaurants, are often high in sodium. Too much sodium can increase your risk of high blood pressure, and high blood pressure often leads to heart disease and stroke.

  8. Turn off the TV earlier—and get more sleep. A study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology♦♦♦♦ found that getting enough sleep (7 hours or more a night)—along with a healthy diet, regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, and not smoking—improved a person's chances of avoiding cardiovascular disease by 22 percent.

 

"Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks"; R. Schneider, C. Grim, M. Rainforth, et al., Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes (5) 2012: 750-758; http://circoutcomes.ahajournals.org/content/5/6/750.abstract.

♦♦ "Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease", P. Kris-Etherton, W. Harris, L. Appel, Circulation (106) 2002: 2747-2757; http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/106/21/2747.full#sec-14

♦♦♦ "Fish Oil," Medline Plus; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html.

♦♦♦♦ "Sufficient Sleep Duration Contributes to Lower Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Addition to Four Traditional Lifestyle Factors: the MORGEN Study", MP Hoevenaar-Blom, AM Spijkerman, D Kromhout, et al., European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Jul 3, 2013.