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Sunday, February 25, 2018
HomeHealthReducing Heart Disease Risk is Simple. So Why Don’t More Women do it?

Reducing Heart Disease Risk is Simple. So Why Don’t More Women do it?

Want to live longer? There’s really no substitute for exercise. According to the latest research published in American Heart Association journal Circulation, it only takes a few times a week to make a difference.


In a study of 1.1 million healthy women in the United Kingdom, researchers found that middle-aged women who are physically active a few times per week have lower risks of heart disease, stroke and blood clots than inactive women. Surprisingly, more frequent physical activity didn’t result in further reductions in risk, researchers said.


Specifically, women who performed strenuous physical activity– enough to cause sweating or a faster heart beat — two to three times per week were about 20 percent less likely to develop heart disease, strokes or blood clots compared to participants who reported little or no activity. Among active women, there was little evidence of further risk reductions with more frequent activity.


The women reported their level of physical activity at the beginning of the study and three years later. Researchers then examined hospital admissions and deaths in relation to participants’ responses. Follow-up was, on average, nine years. Study participants had no history of cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, or diabetes and were part of the Million Women study in 1996-2001. Their average age when they joined the study was 56.


There’s no need to become a marathon runner or triathlete, either. Physical activities associated with reduced risk included walking, gardening and cycling.


“Inactive middle-aged women should try to do some activity regularly,” said Miranda Armstrong, M.Phil., Ph.D, the study’s lead author and a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “However, to prevent heart disease, stroke and blood clots, women don’t need to do very frequent activity as this seems to provide little additional benefit above that of moderately frequent activity.”


Despite numerous studies and data that point to the benefits of exercise, healthy diet, and managing cholesterol and blood pressure, many Americans — including nearly half of U.S. women, still seem to be in denial about their risks. So let’s review:


  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States; about 600,000 people die each year from the disease or related complications according to the CDC.
  • The American Heart Association estimates that heart disease accounts for roughly 17 percent of health care costs in the U.S. We spend nearly $109 billion every year just on coronary heart disease — including health services, medication, and lost productivity.
  • About half of all Americans (49 percent) have at least one key risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD) — high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol or smoking.
  • Diabetes, being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, poor diet and excessive alcohol use also put people at higher risk of heart disease.
  • By 2030, at least 40 percent of Americans — that’s 2 in 5 —  will have  CVD; costs are projected to triple.

Women are particularly vulnerable. The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease estimates that 42 million U.S. women are currently living with heart disease. However, many women remain uninformed about the risks.


The CDC says only about half (54 percent) know it’s the number one killer of women as well as men. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no prior symptoms. Signs of heart attacks in women can also be different than in men, and are sometimes ignored.


Women are also more susceptible than men to what the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute calls “broken heart syndrome,” or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It frequently strikes previously healthy women — when extreme emotional stress results in severe (but often short-term) heart muscle failure. This is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack because symptoms are similar. However, there’s no evidence of blocked heart arteries in broken heart syndrome, and most people have a full and quick recovery.


You’ve heard it all before, but February is Heart Month, so it bears repeating: Watch your diet, manage your vital signs, quit smoking and do some type of regular physical activity. It’s easy to find excuses not to exercise. This latest study shows how little it takes to make a huge difference.

Written by

Diana is a co-director of the GW Nursing Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement and founder of HealthCetera. She was previously president of the American Academy of Nursing. She is senior policy professor at George Washington University and the Rudin Professor of Nursing at Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. She is a health policy expert and leader. Diana tweets @djmasonrn.

Latest comment

  • What perfect timing. I just left my class Disease and Disaster in Media and Culture, and for the umpteenth straight semester, a discussion about gendered perceptions of disease and illness revealed that very few of the women students in my class understood why they should be concerned about heart health and heart disease. I’ve been raising this issue in class for at least 15 years.

    It’s not that I’m surprised, I’m disheartened. These enduring perceptions are one heckuva tough nut to crack. And while all sorts of work – including some interesting stuff by Lori Mosca and colleagues — has shown substantial growth in CVD awareness among women, this progress has generally not been matched by younger women and women of color.

    Still so much work to do.