How to keep your heart healthy

Relatively easy steps to live longer


Kelly James-Enger

Chicago mom Susan Bennett was 40 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 unconscious. Her husband, Chris Paluch, called 911.

Susan had had a heart attack. Paramedics restarted her heart with an external defibrillator and she had an angiogram that night. She spent three weeks in the hospital.

"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 wrong with my breast because I was nursing. She told me take an aspirin and call 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 and I had to look for a new job, and I bought a new house" Bennett says. Her doctors think the stress of being pregnant on top of everything else may have led to her heart attack.

But all in all, Bennett was lucky. 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. Your lifestyle in your 30s, 40s and 50s (and beyond) can help reduce your risk.

Risk factors include smoking, hypertension, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol, family history, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, says Joan Briller, M.D., an associate professor of medicine (cardiology) and the director of the Heart Disease in Women Program at University of Illinois at Chicago.

No, you can't control your family history. But there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your risk and help you live healthier-as well as modeling positive habits for your children. "Lifestyle changes (like exercise and eating better) 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.

Those lifestyle changes include:

Get moving. 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 or a couple of high-intensity workouts (think spinning) each week. Remember even mini-workouts, like a 10-minute walk after lunch or some enthusiastic vacuuming, "counts."

Lower the pressure. "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. If it's on the high side, ask your doctor if you need to lose weight. Lowering your salt intake and becoming more active help, too. If lifestyle changes don't work, ask your doctor about medication.

Manage your stress. Research has linked chronic stress and heart disease, and if you're like most moms, you probably feel stressed or overwhelmed sometimes. Even if you can't ditch the stressors (like your kids!), you can figure out how to manage yours better.

"The key change for me was to really recognize the stress of my crazy lifestyle and the toll that it takes and try to make adjustments for it," says Bennett.


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