Heart disease and diabetes run in my family. I have a genetic predisposition to either or both.
It’s a little scary to type those words; it makes me feel vulnerable. No hiding from it. There it is, right out in the open. But expressing it here isn’t nearly as scary as the thought of leaving my daughters prematurely due to a stroke or heart attack. My girls have already lost one parent; I am not going to cause them that pain anytime soon, if I can help it.
My mother has Type 2 diabetes. My grandfather had a quadruple bypass. My uncle died of a massive heart attack that hit without warning. Both heart disease and diabetes have riddled my side of our family, and my late husband’s side of the family as well. It’s time to break that chain for my daughters.
I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes while pregnant with my youngest. I have a suspicion I had gestational diabetes while pregnant with my oldest, too – but it wasn’t routinely tested for, like it is now. Having gestational diabetes makes me 50-75% more likely to develop diabetes later in life.
My husband had Type 2 diabetes, so we learned to eat correctly to control his diabetes. That is helpful for me now – I can implement that eating plan to lessen the chances of developing diabetes myself.
My biggest problem has always been my weight. It’s what plagues me now more than anything. It’s what scares me the most, and puts me at the highest risk for heart attack.
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Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain such as:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Unusual fatigue
Here are some common myths about heart disease in women, courtesy of the American Heart Association “Go Red For Women” campaign:
Myth: Heart disease is for men, and cancer is the real threat for women
Fact: Heart disease is a killer that strikes more women than men, and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease claims the lives of one in three. That’s roughly one death each minute.
Myth: Heart disease is for old people
Fact: Heart disease affects women of all ages. For younger women, the combination of birth control pills and smoking boosts heart disease risks by 20 percent. And while the risks do increase with age, things like overeating and a sedentary lifestyle can cause plaque to accumulate and lead to clogged arteries later in life. But even if you lead a completely healthy lifestyle, being born with an underlying heart condition can be a risk factor.
Myth: Heart disease doesn’t affect women who are fit
Fact: Even if you’re a yoga-loving, marathon-running workout fiend, your risk for heart disease isn’t completely eliminated. Factors like cholesterol, eating habits and smoking can counterbalance your other healthy habits. You can be thin and have high cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends you start getting your cholesterol checked at age 20, or earlier, if your family has a history of heart disease. And while you’re at it, be sure to keep an eye on your blood pressure at your next check-up.
Myth: I don’t have any symptoms
Fact: Sixty-four percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. Because these symptoms vary greatly between men and women, they’re often misunderstood. Media has conditioned us to believe that the telltale sign of a heart attack is extreme chest pain. But in reality, women are somewhat more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain. Other symptoms women should look out for are dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen and extreme fatigue.
Myth: Heart disease runs in my family, so there’s nothing I can do about it
Fact: Although women with a family history of heart disease are at higher risk, there’s plenty you can do to dramatically reduce it. Simply create an action plan to keep your heart healthy.
EXERCISE AND HEART DISEASE
Be more active. Get at least 30 minutes per day of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, at least 5 days per week. And when possible, try to fit even more activity into your life: take the stairs rather than the elevator, do yard work, park farther from your destination and walk, etc.
Start with a check up with your doctor, then start your exercise program slowly. Begin with 15 minutes of activity, increasing it to 30 minutes of exercising 5 times per week. Then mix up the intensity – low, then high. For example, walk for 3 minutes, jog for 1 minute. Increase slowly, as you are able.
You can keep exercise interesting by mixing things up. Check out classpass.com to sample group exercise classes in your neighborhood. Stream videos of a wide variety of workouts from grokker.com.
Incorporate strength training into your everyday activities. Strength training is simply anything that uses muscle power; carrying in heavy bags of groceries moving bags of soil outside, lifting boxes in the attic, etc. Or invest in a pair of 5 lb. or 10 lb. weights, then lift them during commercials when you watch TV in the evening, etc. Fit in 10-15 minutes twice per week, and you are on your way to building those all-important muscles.
Invest in a step counter, and go for a walk after dinner around your neighborhood. Not only does this help you to get more exercise, but the activity after a meal helps with digestion. Take the kids and make it a family habit to get some fresh air and exercise during the day. With the weather warming up, an after-dinner walk could be perfect!
Sitting is the new smoking. Stand up at your desk during work, or take short walks down the hallway or around the office. Frequent periods of standing and/or walking help to keep you from being too sedentary. Employ the “20/2 Rule” – for every 20 minutes you spend sitting, spend 2 minutes standing or walking.
DIET AND HEART DISEASE
Eat healthfully. Studies at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere have identified several crucial ingredients in a heart-healthy diet: whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts (about 5 ounces per week), poly and monounsaturated fats, fatty fish (such as wild salmon), and limited intake of trans fats.
My biggest craving is probably bread and sweets. I have a massive sweet tooth! I blame my grandmother for that – she was a wonderful baker, and had an incredible sweet tooth of her own. However, she had the metabolism that allowed her to burn all those calories off and not gain weight. I, on the other hand, am not blessed with that type of metabolism. I find it very unfair that I inherited her sweet tooth, but not her ability to eat hot fudge sundaes with abandon and never gain an ounce.
One thing that helps to control my cravings is to drink a lot of water. Sometimes thirst can be mistaken for hunger, so I try to drink a glass of water when I feel hungry. If I still feel hungry 10-15 minutes after drinking water, I consider getting something to eat. But I make myself drink that glass of water FIRST. It also gives me time to think through what I want to eat, and make healthier choices.
I also slow down when I eat. If I don’t make myself slow down I will eat too quickly and then consume way more than I need or intend. By slowing down, sipping water during the meal, and engaging in actual conversation with the people I am dining with, I let my brain catch up with my stomach. I allow myself to actually feel full when I get full, instead of over-eating and then realizing after the meal that I ate too much.
Here are a few more ideas:
Get out your slow cooker. There are tons of recipes you can make with lean protein and lots of veggies. I like to make chicken taco soup, loaded with lean shredded chicken breast, black beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, etc. I also make vegetable soup on a regular basis – just throw in lots of cut up veggies with broth, seasoning, and some beans or barley. Dinner is ready when I get home, and we sit down to a healthy meal. Just add a salad or some fruit. Experimenting with new healthy recipes is half the fun! Let your kids help pick out the vegetables for the soup – get them involved in eating healthy and encourage good eating habits while they are young.
Ready to eat veggies can be a great resource. Yes, I know it’s more expensive to get the pre-cut veggies or fruit. It is more cost effective to get whole carrots in a big bag and cut them up, instead of buying the individual pouches of baby carrots for snacks. What’s best, though, is eating those carrots and not wasting them. So if you buy a big bag of carrots, but never get around to prepping them – and they rot in your refrigerator – you’ve just wasted money. Better to get the veggies you will eat, even if it costs a little more money. It certainly still costs less than take out, not to mention the medical bills from heart disease and diabetes down the road.
Stock healthy frozen dinners in the freezer. Yes, there actually are healthy frozen dinners if you are willing to look a little. Add a vegetable and/or salad and you are set for dinner. This gives you the option of still eating healthy when you don’t feel like cooking, or haven’t planned anything ahead of time. Look for meals that have approximately 400 calories, 15 grams of protein, less than 600 mg of sodium, 5 grams or more of fiber, and less than 4 grams of saturated fat.
Cook with herbs, and stash the salt. Too much sodium raises blood pressure. Some herbs have phytochemicals, causing a release of toxins from your body. Garlic has been shown to lower blood pressure, and cinnamon tends to stabilize blood sugar levels. Think about starting a windowsill herb garden in your kitchen so you will always have herbs on hand. My daughter started one as a science project a few weeks ago, and we will be reaping the benefits soon!
STRESS AND HEART DISEASE
One of the biggest causes of overeating is stress, which also increases our risk of stroke and heart disease. Stress from your job, your environment, your relationships, etc. can all increase blood pressure and lead to stroke or heart attacks. Stress makes us eat more, which causes weight gain. Stress keeps us up at night, which leads to fatigue – and when we are tired we don’t make healthy food choices. Which leads to feeling more fatigue and low energy, which keeps us from being active like we need to be, etc. You see the cycle here, right?!?!
Stress and poor sleep can increase your risk of heart attack. But you can break the cycle. By taking steps to tame tension you can get off the merry go round. Practice relaxation techniques, deep breathing, yoga, etc. It can begin with something as simple as downloading a free app. Two to try are: Meditation Game and Calm-Meditate, Sleep, Relax. There are also apps for rain sounds, relaxing sounds, etc.
Also, first thing when you wake up in the morning, try a few minutes of light stretching before you get out of bed. Or try a few minutes of stretching, yoga, or massage with a foam roller before you go take your morning shower. Then add a few minutes of the same before crawling into bed at night.
Try these tips for better sleep:
- Keep your bedroom cool; 68 degrees is ideal.
- Quit caffeine by 2 pm
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
- If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep for 20 minutes, get out of bed until you are sleepy.
- Eliminate clutter in your bedroom and all over the house. Less clutter means less stress, and a better night’s sleep.
We’ve talked already about getting outside and walking to get more exercise. Getting outside in the fresh air, greenery, and sun also reduces stress! So instead of mindlessly eating a sandwich at your desk, go take a break outdoors. Can’t get out? Fill your home or work area with plants, which may make you feel less anxious and more relaxed.
The choices we make to live healthy will go a long ways to overriding our heredity. We may have a predisposition for a certain ailment like heart disease, but there are many things we can do daily to change our health for the better.
Take control of your healthy; for yourself and for your children. They need you around, so be there for them. And you deserve to enjoy a long and happy life as well.