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Women over 50 most at risk of heart disease


Linda Geist
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 573-882-9185

Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Story source:

Susan Mills-Gray, 816-380-8460

HARRISONVILLE, Mo. – While we’ve all seen the image of a gray-haired, overweight man clenching his heart and gasping for breath, just as many women as men have heart attacks, notes a University of Missouri Extension nutrition specialist.

More than 400,000 women die from heart disease annually, making it the leading killer of women, said Susan L. Mills-Gray. “More women die each year from heart disease than all forms of cancer combined.”

Mills-Gray teaches a 12-week program for women over 40 who are interested in reducing their risk of heart disease.

The MU Extension class teaches women how to fight the onset of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and other risk factors through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains.

Women under 50 who have heart attacks are twice as likely to die as men, Mills-Gray said. Women facing menopause are at increased risk because of the loss of estrogen. Other contributing risk factors are diabetes, smoking, excess weight and abdominal fat, physical inactivity, lack of skills to manage stress, first-degree relatives with heart disease, and age (55 and over).

She recommends that women visit their doctor and know what blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body mass index and blood glucose levels mean to their health.

One of the free tools she recommends is an online calculator to determine body mass index (BMI), which should be under 25, at BMI scores don’t take into account the amount of muscle and fat and individual has.

The symptoms of heart attacks are similar to those of common ailments such as cold or flu, and are often overlooked. She reminds women to be mindful of the symptoms, especially when one or more of those symptoms are present. The symptoms include pain, fullness, squeezing or pressure in the center of your chest, especially if it lasts more than a few minutes or subsides and returns; shortness of breath, which may or may not be accompanied by chest pain; discomfort or pain between the shoulder blades or in the back, neck, jaw, stomach or one or both of the arms; nausea; lightheadedness; or breaking out in a cold sweat.

Mills-Gray says women can reduce their risk of heart disease by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, limiting salt and fat intake, and choosing fiber-rich grains.

“Limit convenience products and make snacks count,” she said. And what your mother told you still holds true: Start the day off with a good breakfast.

She also suggests that the family shopper learn to read nutrition labels before making a purchase. “Many times you will find a so-called ‘healthy’ product is not really any lower in fat or sodium than any other product,” she said.

She suggests the following MU Extension resources for women who want to improve their heart health:

Strong Women, Healthy Hearts. This 12-week program helps reduce their risk of heart disease by focusing on dietary intake, stress reduction and increasing physical activity.

Stay Strong, Stay Healthy ( This 10-week class focuses on strength training to improve strength, balance and flexibility.

Taking Care of You: Body, Mind, Spirit ( This six-week class focuses on helping participants learn mindfulness stress-reduction techniques.

Eating Well with Diabetes. This four-week class focuses on learning improved management techniques through dietary intake.

For information about MU Extension health and fitness programs in your area, contact your local MU Extension center or go to

For more health and nutrition information from MU Extension, including feature articles, answers to frequently asked questions and learning opportunities, go to

For a variety of heart-healthy recipes, go to