Surveys show that few women think heart disease is their greatest health threat. Unfortunately, it's the nation's number one killer, and women are its prime target. Over one-third of the women who die in the U.S. each year die of heart disease. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than breast cancer. 

The risk of heart attack and stroke increases with age. That’s especially true after menopause. But you should start protecting yourself from heart disease early. The buildup of plaque in your arteries—called atherosclerosis—can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis can start as early as your teens and 20s. 

> Check your risk

Talk with your healthcare provider about your cholesterol and blood pressure. Have both checked. The higher either of them is, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. To check cholesterol, a blood test is done, usually after fasting. This test is done to measure the fats in your blood. It can tell you:

  • Your total cholesterol
  • LDL ("bad") cholesterol
  • HDL ("good") cholesterol
  • Triglycerides, another form of fat in the blood 

But your cholesterol is only part of it. Your healthcare provider will look at your medical history. He or she will also ask about your family history of heart disease. This information will help assess your personal risk for the disease. He or she may decide you need medicine to lower your cholesterol. Or your healthcare provider may want you to make lifestyle changes before prescribing medicine. 

For some women, heart disease is preventable. The following lifestyle changes can help women lower their risk for it.

> Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight can raise your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also puts you at risk for type 2 diabetes. This condition can also raise your risk for clogged arteries and heart attack. 

By losing weight, you'll lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. You’ll also be less likely to develop diabetes. Even losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can make a difference. Talk with your healthcare provider about your weight.

> Quit smoking

Smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack than do nonsmokers. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can shrink coronary arteries, making it tough for blood to circulate. Smoking can also cause the lining of blood vessels to become stickier. As a result, blood clots are more likely, which can cause stroke.

> Get active

Strive for at least 30 to 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity 4 to 5 days a week. Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. It can raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol.

> Change your fats

Change the fats in your diet. Avoid butter and other saturated fats. Instead use liquid margarine, tub margarine, olive oil and canola oil. But use them sparingly because all fats are high in calories. Each type of fat contains roughly 100 calories per tablespoon. Too much dietary fat of any kind can lead to weight gain.

Also limit:

    • Full-fat dairy products
    • Fatty meats
    • Palm oil
    • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
    • Convenience or other prepared foods high in fat

> Eat your fruits and veggies

Eat plenty of produce. A moderately active woman should eat at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily. Studies link diets high in fruits and vegetables with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for heart disease.

> Fiber up

Soluble fiber helps reduce LDL cholesterol. Oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and other whole-grain foods are excellent sources of this nutrient. Adults should have 6 to 9 ounces of grains per day. Half of this amount should be whole grains.

> Drink alcohol only in moderation

Women should limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day. That’s equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine or 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits.