Ellen Dolgen Menopause MondaysNext time you’re with a group of girlfriends, look to your left. Then look to your right. Of the three of you, one probably has heart disease, the number-one killer of women in the United States.

More than one in three women have some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association, and every 90 seconds, one of them suffers a heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Now only 53 percent of women recognize that cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women,” says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. “Said another way, almost half of women still do not know. Importantly, among the 53 percent, most do not feel that cardiovascular disease is their leading healthcare threat, so women continue to fail to make the numbers personal.”

I first encountered heart disease at the young age of 11, when my lovely father, who was 42 at the time, suffered his first heart attack. Through the years, my family watched him go through one open-heart surgery, countless diet and lifestyle changes, and, ultimately, his passing at just 58 years young.

My father’s heart disease was discovered too late, but he wouldn’t let that happen to any of his kids. The doctor who performed my father’s open-heart surgery suggested that we all get our cholesterol checked, so my dad sent us to the doctor to run the numbers.

The result: I learned at the age of 17 that I too had alarmingly high cholesterol levels (honestly, at first I thought the doctor had mistakenly switched my results with my dad’s!). I knew I had to make a change if I wasn’t going to leave this Earth too soon as well. Today, at 60 years old and with a heart as strong as an ox, I am living proof that a healthy lifestyle is as important as hereditary predispositions in determining your heart health. Healthy living has not just saved my heart–it has saved my life!

It can save yours, too! Take these four easy steps to protect yourself from heart disease:

Know Your Numbers

The first step to waging war on heart disease is to know thy enemy. To arm yourself with the right weapons, you first need to understand your own personal risks factors and what you can do to reduce them. Talk to your physician or gynecologist about the tests out there that are available to you: A lipid panel, a blood test that measures your triglyceride as well as overall cholesterol, HDL, and LDL levels; a blood glucose test, which helps determine your levels of insulin sensitivity; C-reactive protein tests, which evaluates your body’s inflammation levels; a stress test, which determines how much stress your heart can handle; and an electrocardiogram, which assesses your heart’s electrical signals. You can also get a general idea of your cardiovascular risk by taking the American Heart Association’s Go Red Heart CheckUp. If your numbers are out of sorts, take it seriously, but try not to panic. With lifestyle changes and medication, many people can actually reverse their heart disease, according to Merz.

Live The Good Life

You’ve heard it a gazillion times: Exercise and eat right. Luckily, even if menopause lands you in the sisterhood of the shrinking pants, going down a size to up your heart health doesn’t require a complete lifestyle makeover. Practicing five healthy lifestyle habits–consuming moderate amounts of alcohol (sorry alcohol lovers!), eating a healthy diet, exercising daily, maintaining a normal body weight, and not smoking–can cut your heart attack risk by a whopping 92 percent, according to a Swedish study of more than 24,000 postmenopausal women. These activities will also help out with those annoying menopause symptoms in perimenopause and menopause, which is a WIN-WIN! Integrating just the first two into your routine–celebrating a daily happy hour habit and noshing on healthy foods–cuts your risk by more than half. What’s more, walking may reduce the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease as well as running does, according to a recent study published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. You don’t have to be an athlete to find heart health!

Consider HRT for More Than That Pesky Menopause Symptom Hot Flash Relief

This just in: Hormone replacement therapy can reduce the risk of heart disease! I repeat, hormone replacement therapy can reduce the risk of heart disease! The key is starting earlier rather than later. According to the North American Menopause Society’s latest review of hormone replacement therapy, Global Consensus Statement on Menopausal Hormone Therapy, hormone therapy is the most effective treatment for cardiovascular symptoms associated with menopause, especially in women who begin therapy within perimenopause or 10 years of entering menopause. Meanwhile, a follow-up review of the Women’s Health Initiative trial in 2011 confirmed a decreased mortality risk of 13 per 10,000 per year among women 50 to 59 with hysterectomies who took CEE (conjugated equine estrogens). It also found that CEE decreased rates of heart attacks by 50 percent. While this form of estrogen does carry a risk of venous thromboembolism, today, most women taking hormone replacement therapy take bioidentical hormones, which have a lower risk of heart attack, venous thromboembolism, and blood clots than CEE, according to a new study from the University of Florida College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Spot the Signs of a Heart Attack

Listen up women entering perimenopause and menopause. More women than men die each year from heart attacks, but many people still equate heart attacks with the symptoms that men, not women, typically show, according to the American Heart Association. The result: Heart attacks in women are often recognized too late–or not at all. In fact, due to the lack of knowledge surrounding female heart attack symptoms, women are about 50 percent more likely than men to have at least 15-minute delays in treatment for heart-attack-related 911 calls, according to research published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. The solution? Learn the signs, including nausea, feelings of indigestion, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Get more tips on spotting female heart attack symptoms.

We women have big loving hearts. So this American Heart Month, pay special attention to and care for your true Valentine, your heart! Donning a red dress is not enough!

red dress

Suffering in silence is OUT! Reaching out is IN!

Looking for creative ways to say “I love you” all year long? Enter to win February’s Giveaway!

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