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Women's Health

Your Age-by-Age Guide to a Healthy Heart

Hidden risks and new save-your-life advice for every decade
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Surprising Hidden Risks

• Missed periods. Just about everyone skips from time to time, but women with long histories of irregular cycles at age 35 have a 50 percent greater chance of eventually having a heart attack, a large Harvard study reported. It may be because erratic cycles are frequently linked with obesity. They're also a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common hormonal disorder that raises the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, as well as infertility and acne. Medication and weight loss (if needed) can get symptoms under control — and should reduce your heart risk, says Anuja Dokras, M.D., an ob-gyn at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Still, to be on the safe side, she advises her PCOS patients to get cholesterol and blood sugar checks every other year.

• High blood sugar in pregnancy. You don't have to have had full-blown gestational diabetes — even the suspicion of the disorder is heart-risky. A University of Toronto study found that women who "fail" the glucose screening test that's routinely given in pregnancy have a 19 percent increased risk of heart disease over the next 12 years — even if they pass the second, definitive test and do not have the disease. (For women who do have it, odds jump by 66 percent.) This scenario — a positive screening and negative diagnostic test — may be an indication that a woman's glucose control and arteries aren't quite as healthy as they could be, says lead author Ravi Retnakaran, M.D. What can you do now? Ask your doctor about more targeted checkups for potential heart problems — and keep your weight down.

• Low vitamin D. In a large Finnish study, adults over age 30 who had the lowest blood levels of vitamin D were 25 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease later in life than those with the highest levels. "Vitamin D may keep the muscle cells that line the artery walls healthy and flexible, helping to maintain good blood flow to the heart and brain," says Michal Melamed, M.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Only 23 percent of Americans have adequate D levels; to find out where you stand, ask your doctor for a blood check. What's a "good" level? Experts aren't sure what number is ideal, but agree it should be at least 30 nanograms per milliliter. As for supplements, current guidelines recommend 200 IUs of D daily for people ages 19 to 50, 400 IUs for ages 51 to 70, and 600 IUs for those over 70, but most experts think 1,000 IUs is more in line with what you really need.

YOUR CHECKUP CHECKLIST
Start screening early — then don't slack off. These are the tests all women should have, says the American Heart Association, but ask your doctor about special exams or more frequent checks if you're at higher risk.

In Your 30s:
• Blood pressure, pulse, waist circumference, and BMI: Have these measured every two years
• Family history: Update at every doctor's visit
• Fasting cholesterol: Test every five years

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