Heart health for women

The American Heart Association issues some new female-specific guidelines.

Published February 20, 2007 4:50PM (EST)

The American Heart Association has just released updated guidelines on how women can prevent cardiovascular disease. (Here's a link to the Associated Press summary of the report.)

One of the main differences from the report's 2004 predecessor is its emphasis on lifelong prevention for cardiovascular disease, which is the largest single cause of death among women (accounting for 38 percent of all deaths among females, according to the AHA). This includes, perhaps unsurprisingly, advice to women to quit smoking, eat more fruits and vegetables (and less saturated fat) and increase their daily exercise.

But it also clears up some confusion about what the most current recommendations are for women's preventive care. For example:

-- Dietary supplements like vitamins C and E and beta carotene have not been convincingly shown to prevent heart disease in women. Folic acid is also no longer recommended for primary or secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, which is a change from the 2004 guidelines.
-- Hormone replacement therapy and selective estrogen receptor modulators are also not recommended to prevent CVD. (Note: That doesn't mean that the supplements or hormone therapies listed don't have other benefits; these recommendations are focused on cardiovascular health.)
-- Women should, however, eat more oily fish, and consider adding an omega-3 supplement if they're at high risk for heart disease or have high triglyceride levels (check the AHA's link for dosing info).
-- This one's controversial: Regularly taking a low dose of aspirin is now being recommended to women under the age of 65 "if benefits are likely to outweigh other risks" (ask your doctor about that one -- risks include things like internal bleeding). The earlier guidelines didn't recommend aspirin for younger or lower-risk women, and according to the AP, the verdict is not entirely in yet on what age is best to start taking it preventively.

To me, most of the lifestyle recommendations offered by the AHA seem pretty straightforward -- eat better and exercise more. But I guess it's good to hear the advice from as many sources as possible. It's kind of like the way teenagers may discount advice from their family members but pay more attention when the same counsel comes from strangers. Sure, we've heard the whole "eat less, quit smoking, exercise more" from the American Diabetes Association and pretty much every report on obesity, but dude, this is the American Heart Association. This time, it's like, totally different.

Plus, on a more serious note, it's good that there are some updated female-specific guidelines on cardiovascular disease coming out that communicate what's being learned from the increasing amount of gender-specific heart disease research that's going on.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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