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Reduce risk for heart disease with lifestyle changes and new tool

Written By: Vicki Powers, UT Physicians | Updated: February 16, 2024
Physician listening to a young female patient's heart with a stethoscope to check for heart disease

The Go Red for Women awareness campaign brings heart health to the forefront, encouraging women not to ignore symptoms. This year marks the 20th year of the campaign.

Would knowing your 30-year risk for developing cardiovascular disease impact your habits today? Thanks to lifestyle changes and a new online risk calculator, it may be easier to reduce your risk for heart disease, armed with knowledge. Learn why it is especially important for women, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Go Red for Women.

Heart disease is a broad term describing a problem with the heart. The most common issues include heart attack or heart artery blockages, congestive heart failure (a weak heart), or atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm). Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

Value of quality sleep and managing stress

Deepa Raghunathan, MD
Deepa Raghunathan, MD

The American Heart Association (AHA) provides a list of 10 lifestyle changes to prevent a heart attack, relating to diet, activity, movement, and more. While they all have a huge impact, Deepa Raghunathan, MD, a cardiologist with UT Physicians Multispecialty – The Heights, said two factors are often not top of mind: the importance of good quality sleep and managing stress.

“Sleep quality and stress go hand-in-hand. They contribute to potentially making poor nutrition decisions, being too tired to exercise, and can raise blood pressure,” said Raghunathan, assistant professor of cardiology with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “Similarly, sleep apnea, where the body is not getting enough oxygen, can directly cause the development of atrial fibrillation.”

Most importantly, Raghunathan recommends people know their risk. Include actions such as:

  • Check cholesterol, sugar levels, and blood pressure
  • Stay hydrated
  • Add movement into your daily life

“Hopefully, diet and exercise are not seen as another chore on a woman’s long list of to-dos, but become a way of life,” she added.

New online tool predicts risk of heart disease

AHA released a new online risk calculator in November 2023 that has cardiologists optimistic. Dubbed PREVENT (Predicting Risk of cardiovascular disease EVENTs), it predicts the risk for patients to develop cardiac events. It starts with younger patients (age 30 and up) and also spans a longer period, up to 30 years.

“This is great because the previous tool only started at age 40 with a 10-year-risk of developing heart disease, which is usually low,” Raghunathan said. “The calculator may allow for more permanent lifestyle modifications with data on younger patients over a longer period.”

Users input their health data into the online calculator to receive their estimated risk in 10 years and 30 years. It focuses on three areas: cardiovascular disease, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease), and heart failure. The categories relate to heart health, such as age, cholesterol, BMI, blood pressure, presence of diabetes, smoking, and more.

Raghunathan recommends this online calculator to anyone as an individual awareness tool. Users also can discuss the information with their health care provider. This conversation could suggest changes to reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

“There has been a lot of discussion regarding limitations with our previous calculator. We now have a better idea how to quantify risk with more data and time to monitor younger patients,” she said.

Relationship between women and heart disease

Back in 2004, many women viewed cardiovascular disease as an older man’s disease despite it being the No. 1 killer of women. This month, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Go Red for Women. The AHA created this campaign to raise awareness and challenge women to know their risk for heart disease.

Sheila Coogan, M.D.
Sheila Coogan, M.D.

Women are more prone to develop heart disease. Hormonal changes in menopause impact how fat deposits in the heart arteries. It is hard to maintain a healthy weight after menopause, according to Sheila Coogan, MD, a vascular surgeon with UT Physicians Heart & Vascular – Bellaire Station and a professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, because of declining muscle mass.

“Being healthy is not something that women will passively be gifted as they age,” Coogan said. “I encourage women to take care of themselves: commit to walking, consider yoga, Pilates, or weight training.”

Women who do this will enjoy a better quality of life and be able to maintain their independence, Coogan said. Just the simple act of walking can provide many benefits in addition to heart health. It also prevents leg swelling and reduces the risk of dementia.

“I ask all my patients who are older and enjoying quality of life into their 80s and 90s what their secret is,” Coogan said. “They almost all walk three to five miles a day. This could be on a treadmill, at the mall, or in their neighborhood. So, commit to walking three to five miles a day, at least five days a week.”

Impact of the Go Red for Women campaign

Raghunathan believes the heart disease awareness campaign has made an impact. Women often do not get their heart evaluated, she said. Women’s symptoms that signify heart problems mostly include shortness of breath rather than the more obvious chest pain.

“I think more women are becoming more aware of the risks of heart disease and taking action sooner than previous generations,” she said.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.