If there would be one Valentine’s Day gift a woman could give to herself, it would be getting to know her numbers of the heart — numbers that indicate risks for coronary artery disease.
Maxine Lingurar, M.D., learned updated information at a recent medical conference and chose February to share the message. February is American Heart Month.
"Coronary heart disease is the number-one killer of women, claiming more lives than all other diseases combined," Dr. Lingurar said. "Women tend to have heart attacks at an older age and their first attack is more likely to be fatal than a man’s first one.
"In addition," Dr. Lingurar noted, "women with diseases related to hardening of the arteries are at greater risk for coronary artery disease. For instance, women who have had a stroke, aortic aneurysm or peripheral artery disease are more at risk."
Some risk factors, such as age and family history, cannot be changed.
"And if we already have evidence of coronary artery disease or another vascular disease, we can’t change that," Dr. Lingurar said. "But that is certainly not the end of the story.
"We can protect ourselves by getting to know our numbers," Dr. Lingurar said. "These include cholesterol and triglycerides, blood pressure, waist measurement and the number of cigarettes smoked."
Dr. Lingurar offered information on each number.
Every adult woman should have a fasting lipid test, which looks at five blood fats. The numbers recorded by the test relate to total cholesterol; HDL, or protective cholesterol; LDL and VLDL, or bad cholesterol; and triglycerides, which are blood fats aside from cholesterol.
The proportion of these blood fats is one factor that defines total risk.
"Next is blood pressure," Dr. Lingurar said. "This is an easier one to learn about. A reading of 140 or greater for the upper (systolic) number or a reading of 90 or greater for the lower (diastolic) number may indicate your heart is working too hard to push blood through your arteries.
"If your blood pressure is increased at a screening center, it needs to be rechecked by your healthcare provider to make sure it is accurate," she cautioned. "Any time test results are a little off, follow-up tests, regular monitoring or a nutritionist’s advice may be recommended. Lipid or blood pressure medications also may be prescribed."
Another important number is waist measurement. Over 35 inches means there is fat collecting on internal organs, which increases the risk of coronary artery fat collection too.
"So, get out your tape measure and write down your number," Dr. Lingurar said. "As you change your diet and increase your exercise, you should recheck this measurement once a month.
"The number can be reduced through activity, which doesn’t have to be a formal exercise program," she said. "Instead, it can be an activity that gets your heart pumping and gets you sweating a little. You should see your provider before starting a new activity, especially if you already have some medical challenges. The most effective activity is one you enjoy doing."
Examples are dancing, walking, cycling or group classes. Allow 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days to maintain weight, or 60-90 minutes when trying to lose weight. Adding strength-building exercises helps build muscle, which increases the metabolic rate.
"Please remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day," Dr. Lingurar commented. "It takes time to build a good fitness foundation for the rest of your life."
Finally, the physician noted, it is important to know the number of cigarettes smoked per day or how many years since smoking cessation.
"Amazingly," she said, "smoking just one-and-a-half cigarettes a day more than doubles the risk of a heart attack. But the really great news is that this risk factor goes back to normal within only two or three years of quitting.
"We know quitting is hard," Dr. Lingurar added. "But get all the help you can and remember how much your heart will thank you. Even if you have tried and relapsed, you owe yourself another try, and another, and another until you finally win."
Free support is available through the Kansas Tobacco Quit Line, 1-866-KAN-STOP (1-866-526-7867), and from local healthcare providers.
Dr. Lingurar also noted what many women will think is good news - a little Valentine’s chocolate might be in order.
"There is data showing that moderate, yes moderate chocolate intake can prevent heart failure," she said. "Small amounts one to three times a week, or even one to three servings a month were enough for this benefit. Sorry, but a larger intake negated the effect."