February marks the start of American Heart Month — a month dedicated to raising awareness about cardiovascular health and heart disease prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every 34 seconds, one person dies in the United States from cardiovascular disease (CVD). For women in particular, CVD is the number one killer, resulting in one in three deaths each year.
Despite these staggering statistics, few people recognize the impact of cardiovascular disease on women compared to other health issues that affect women such as breast cancer, reproductive disorders, mental health conditions and more.
As a cardiologist, physician researcher and advocate for women’s health, shedding light on these hard truths surrounding CVD is a mission that’s near and dear to me. Cardiovascular disease is one of the greatest health threats our communities face, and it has never been more important for individuals to understand their risk for CVD during this American Hearth Month and beyond.
Accordingly, I’d like to underscore the importance of regular testing for women and why heart health checkups should be added to your regular medical calendar.
The importance of regular cardiovascular testing
Cardiovascular health is impacted by several factors such as diet, physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use and more, as stated by the CDC. Since these variables can impact an individual’s cholesterol levels, and in turn, one’s cardiovascular health, getting your cholesterol numbers checked regularly is one of the best ways to manage your cardiovascular risk.
Unfortunately, a survey by the American Heart Association (AHA) found that 76% of women don’t know what their cholesterol values are. With this in mind, the AHA recommends that adults over the age of 20 check their cholesterol levels (including total cholesterol, LDL-c and HDL-c) every 4-6 years, as long as their risk remains low. For individuals who have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cholesterol levels and other risk factors may need to be checked more regularly.
Knowing your numbers is key to understanding your individual risk levels and what changes — such as lifestyle choices or prescribed medicines — need to be made to reduce your risk for CVD. Because lifestyle choices that impact cholesterol levels change over time, regular checkups and testing are crucial.
As you embark on your journey toward better heart health, having baseline numbers to compare against can be helpful. Here’s an infographic that overviews the levels of total cholesterol, including HDL-c, LDL-c and triglycerides, and the ranges of each that we should strive for in pursuit of optimal heart health:
Today and every day, my hope is that we can spotlight heart health as a foundational women’s health issue, raising awareness of the risk factors that are contributing to rising levels of cardiac events in women. With this in mind, I’d like to encourage everyone to get their numbers checked if they haven’t done so recently, and to consider small changes to improve cholesterol levels, such as eating heart-healthy foods, exercising regularly, losing weight and drinking alcohol in moderation. Even small changes can make a big impact on your heart health.
Our heart health is important 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Gradual changes in lifestyle choices paired with regular checkups and testing with doctors can make all the difference for our heart health.