A Little More Each Day

One working mama learning to run & to maintain my 100+ pound weight loss!

Taking better care of our hearts: Heart disease in women

on February 4, 2014
My primary motivation for losing weight (and maintaining my weight loss) is my health and for me, this is specifically about heart health. Beyond the abstract desire to be healthier, my bigger concern was the fact that I’d been on medication for high blood pressure for years.
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Since my mid-20s, I’d had borderline high blood pressure but whenever someone asked I’d put it off to being nervous in the doctor’s office or taking Sudafed for a cold or having a headache. It was never followed up and I was never concerned until I was in the OB/Gyn’s office one day and my blood pressure was 220/110. (To put in perspective, normal is less than 120/80). The scariest part of that is that I felt fine. I had a little headache, but I almost always had a headache. Looking back, I can’t believe they let me go home. That was high enough that I actually should have been admitted to the hospital in a hypertensive crisis. Regardless, it was high enough that it got my attention and I saw my doctor. It took a while and ultimately two medications to get my blood pressure under control. At no point did my doctor tell me to lose weight, which was interesting because I knew that was part of the problem. It just demonstrates how difficult that conversation can be to start tactfully, I guess. I don’t really have much of a family history of high blood pressure and there aren’t a whole lot of reasons I should have had blood pressure that high as a 29 year old. Even looking back, the only symptom I ever had was the interesting ability to hear my heart beat when I was in bed at night because the blood was going so strongly through my temporal artery (across your temples) and it was rubbing against my pillowcase. There is a reason hypertension is known as a “silent killer” – you really won’t know you have it unless you get screened or something catastrophic happens. I am so grateful I got through that experience without a stroke. Please, please be sure you get your blood pressure screened regularly!
I had to stay on medication during my pregnancy and was worried about the effects of both the medication and the high blood pressure on my baby. I required a lot more monitoring because of blood pressure, including non-stress tests twice a week for my last trimester. I had some abnormal screening early on that sent us down the genetic counseling route and those abnormal labs were most likely due to unhappy my blood pressure made my poor placenta. It still makes me sick that I put my child at risk, no matter how unintentionally.

One of the biggest successes for me in this process has been going off of blood pressure medication. I actually now tend to have low blood pressure and have been off medication for over a year. My doctor cried the day she officially got to stop my medication.

Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, which can be so frustratingly unrecognized amongst all of the things we hear about in the news and social media. Heart disease kills more women that all forms of cancer combined and the cause of 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year. Women actually have higher mortality rates than men with heart disease, most likely because women can present with symptoms that are different than the textbook male heart disease presentation and because both women and health care providers underestimate how common heart disease is in women.

While weight loss enabled me to get off medication for my own heart disease, obesity is not the only risk factor for heart disease and not the only modifiable risk factor. Other things that we can change that have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease include:

– Physical inactivity: Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity decreases the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.

– Control your high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol. If you have any of these conditions, getting them under control (even if medication is needed) decreases your overall risk of heart disease.

– Stop smoking. Your risk of heart disease decreases drastically very quickly after quitting.

– Eat a healthy diet. In terms of heart disease, a healthy diet means one high in fruits and vegetables, with healthy fats and minimal (or no trans fats, which I’ve talked about before).
– Managing stress. It’s interesting that this comes up on a lot of lists of modifiable risk factors, but no one is really sure how this increases the risk for heart disease. It may be because stress impacts other things like blood pressure or eating habits or may be a direct effect of stress itself.
– Central obesity: A waist circumference >35 inches, meaning that pear shaped people are at lower risk than apple shapes.

Other risk factors, like being post-menopausal, African American or Native American race, older age and a family history of early heart disease, are things we can’t change. The most important thing is to focus on the things we can change and to remember that weight is only one of those things. If you’ve made changes to your diet and started exercising but your weight isn’t moving much yet, remember that diet and exercise are risk factors for heart disease independently of your weight so you really are getting healthier. The scale is only a tiny part of this process.

Friday is National Wear Red Day to raise awareness of heart disease and I highly encourage everyone to go check out the American Heart Association’s website GoRedforWomen. It has tons of great information about symptoms of heart disease, risk factors for heart disease and things you can do to get healthier. In this month that is all about hearts and kisses, let’s be sure to take care of our hearts so we can get more kisses.

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Resources for more reading:

http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/risk-factors-heart-disease
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/educational/hearttruth/lower-risk/risk-factors.htm
http://womenshealth.gov/heart-health-stroke/heart-disease-risk-factors/heart-disease-risk-factors-you-can-control.html

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4 responses to “Taking better care of our hearts: Heart disease in women

  1. Jess, this is great information, and so important too!! I have to say that I think it is interesting your doctor didn’t inform you that weight-loss could have a huge impact on your blood pressure. Doctors should be able to recommend anything and everything if it means their patient will be healthier. I get that it’s a hard thing to bring up, but a doctor should be able to! Ok, stepping off soap box now lol

    • I suspect she just assumed I knew it was because of my weight, but it is still a conversation we should have had. I’m truthfully relieved that my high blood pressure went away after I lost weight. I was a little worried I’d keep it, even after the weight loss. As it is, I get worried now any time I have headaches a few days in a row. Of course, I have to remind myself right now that those headaches are coming from bad sleep thanks to nerves about the half marathon.

      On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 7:38 AM, A Little More Each Day wrote:

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this great information! I had high blood pressure post-partum with both of my boys (likely linked to high anxiety that I experienced after each delivery) and it was particularly scary after my oldest. I had to have a home health care nurse come to my house everyday for bp checks and my top number was frequently in the 160’s – 170’s. It was so hard because they obviously wanted me on bp medicine but I was terrified because I was nursing and I wasn’t sure how it would affect my son. I actually didn’t take it for a few days until my ob told me that I had to take care of myself first so I could take care of my son. I think that is something as women, moms, wives, etc we struggle with: taking care of ourselves first because we tend to take care of everyone else first sometimes (frequently) at our own expense. I appreciate you sharing this great information! And I am so glad to hear that you were able to come off of your bp medicine (I also love that your dr was so vested in you and your health that she cried when you came off the medicine. That speaks volumes about her!)

    • She really is awesome. I know what you mean about worrying about meds and breast feeding. I feel like I spent my entire pregnancy and breast feeding time feeling worried and guilty about the effects I was having on O.

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