Handling heart health after menopause

LOS ANGELES Debbie Griffin, 56, thought she was the picture of perfect health. She eats right, works out and enjoys the outdoors with her horse. Debbie's blood pressure is less than 120 over 80, which is ideal. But during one of her annual check-ups, she was diagnosed with /*heart disease*/. Her main artery was completely blocked.

"I thought I knew the risk factors for heart disease and, again, I didn't think I fit any of those profiles," said Debbie.

The one risk factor Debbie overlooked was /*menopause*/. /*Mayo Clinic*/ Dr. Carolyn Landolfo says after menopause, a woman's risk of heart disease skyrockets by 70 percent. Fatigue, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, nausea and burning sensations are all signs of heart disease that many women brush off as hassles of menopause.

"People say, 'I'm just getting older. I need to exercise.' There's always an excuse," said Dr. Landolfo, cardiologist.

After age 50, nearly half of all deaths in women are due to some form of heart disease, which is more than the number of deaths from all cancers combined.

"I think it's important for women to take charge of their own health and ask their doctor, 'Could this be a sign of heart disease?'" said Dr. Landolfo.

Debbie is on medication and a strict diet.

"When your blood pressure is not only good, but excellent, you think that you've got everything under control and you're in great shape," said Debbie. "It's very eye-opening."

Debbie is now working hard to rein in her disease.

Because of recent clinical trials, the /*American Heart Association*/ does not recommend women take postmenopausal hormone therapy to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke.

Web extra information: Heart health after menopause

A deadly link
Heart disease is the number one killer of American women. It's responsible for half of all deaths of women over age 50. Before menopause, women appear to be less susceptible to heart disease, heart attack and stroke than men. However, after menopause, their risk jumps. Experts believe the loss of natural estrogen contributes to the increased risk of heart disease.

Menopause causes changes in the level of fats, or lipids, in a woman's blood. Lipids are what are measured when a person gets their cholesterol checked.

There are two parts that make up cholesterol: high density lipoprotein (/*HDL*/), or "good" cholesterol, and low density lipoprotein (/*LDL*/), or "bad" cholesterol. LDL aids in fat accumulation on the walls of arteries, which causes them to become "clogged." In postmenopausal women, it appears that estrogen loss causes LDL to increase and HDL to decrease.

Staying healthy
/*Cardiovascular disease*/ (CVD) may be prevalent, but it doesn't mean you have to accept it as your fate. It can be prevented by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products; exercising; and not smoking or using tobacco products. Many physicians also believe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke. However, because of recent clinical trials, the American Heart Association does not recommend HRT.

Experts also recommend staying on top of your heart health by getting regular health screenings. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels, but without testing, it's most likely you won't know you're suffering from these problems because they usually have no overt symptoms.

About one in three adults has high blood pressure. Experts recommend adults have their blood pressure screened at least every two years, and if your numbers aren't the ideal 120/80, you should be checked more often. Doctors advise adults to have their cholesterol levels tested at least once every five years, and more frequently if your numbers are not optimal.

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