Tammy Hardin enrolled in college at age 49. So when she started to have frequent heartburn, she chalked it up to the stress of studying, semester finals and her personal life. But as her symptoms worsened, it seemed that taking antacids before every meal was the best choice to not get heartburn. At one point she could only drink water or milk. A year later, after troubling stress-test results,the doctor scheduled a cardiac catheterization to take a closer look, but fear compelled her to reschedule the test three times. She was admitted to the hospital due to gallbladder issues when doctors discovered Hardin had three blocked arteries. Once the gallbladder issues subsided, she was immediately scheduled for triple bypass surgery.
Heart attack symptoms often present differently in women than in men. Rachel M. Bond, a cardiologist and women’s heart health and prevention specialist, says that about a third of women may not even experience chest pain. Instead, like Hardin, we may have indigestion, chest discomfort, shoulder or jaw pain, shortness of breath, nausea, profuse sweating or extreme fatigue. “It's important for women to keep an eye out for these subtler symptoms as they can be the first sign that a heart attack is imminently pending,” Bond advises.
Hardin feels fortunate to have survived. But heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in women, disproportionately affect Black women. The American Heart Association reports that among African American women age 20 and older, a staggering 49 percent have heart disease and 30 percent of black women over 65 will die within a year of a heart attack. While risk factors like race and family history can’t be changed, others — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes — can.
Hardin is proof. Now 54 and a Champion and District Community Leader in North and South Carolina for WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, she educates women about heart disease and encourages them to advocate for themselves. Most important, the AARP and American Heart Association volunteer now understands the value of self-care and its power to literally save your life. “We are so busy taking care of other people that we just don’t look after ourselves,” she says. “[But] you cannot be passive when it comes to your health.”
To take charge of your own heart health, try these lifestyle tips:
Modify your diet
According to the American Heart Association, about 8 million black women have high blood pressure. Many cases are salt-sensitive, so cutting your sodium can have a huge impact. Before surgery, Hardin’s blood pressure had spiked to 160/110 mm Hg. Now her numbers hover around 140/80 – still high, but markedly improved. To cut your own sodium intake, use healthier alternatives such as spices, a squeeze of lemon or a salt substitute such as Mrs. Dash. Dark, leafy greens, as well as fatty fish (think salmon, sardines and albacore tuna), are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be heart protective. To decrease saturated fats, which have been shown to increase our risk of heart disease, grill or bake lean meats and choose low-fat dairy.
Watch your cholesterol
High cholesterol can increase your risk of a heart attack. Menopause is associated with a progressive increase in total cholesterol, an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol and a decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. But lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and quitting smoking can lower your cholesterol levels, as will limiting carbohydrates and saturated fats such as cheese, fatty meats, egg yolks and whole milk.
Although she admits she’s not as physically active as she could be, Hardin has dropped more than 20 pounds since surgery. Getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise sounds daunting, but that’s actually only 30 minutes a day, five times per week. And any physical activity – even walking or taking the stairs – counts.
Slay your stress
Studies show that women have higher rates of stress than men, so the correlation of stress with heart disease tends to be higher in women, says Bond. “I encourage my patients to find ways to cope, either through finding a hobby, conversations with friends, exercising, yoga and/or meditation.” Meditation, she says, can lower stress, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, further reducing the risk of heart disease.
Keep the faith
Whatever your belief system, having some sort of regular religious or spiritual practice can lessen stress. Bond recommends joining a peer group such as WomenHeart Champions, which provides a community of like-minded people to learn from and relate to.