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Your Age-by-Age Guide to a Healthy Heart

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

Surprising Hidden Risks

• Loneliness. If an empty nest or early retirement leaves you feeling isolated, the heartache may be more than emotional. In a 19-year study, women who reported feeling lonely most of the time had a 76 percent increased risk of heart disease. The connection? Chronic loneliness, like stress, may trigger inflammatory and hormonal changes that promote cardiovascular disease. It may also lead to poorer health habits that increase your risk, notes lead study author Rebecca C. Thurston, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Her Rx: Nurture your friendships and forge close social connections by volunteering at a local charity, joining a book club, or undertaking any other social activities that appeal to you.

• Prediabetes. Elevated blood glucose levels — higher than normal, but not high enough to be diabetes — can lead to big risks. To find out if you're among the 57 million Americans who have prediabetes but don't know it, ask your doctor for a fasting plasma glucose test. If the result is between 100 and 125, it's considered prediabetes. Your next move: Up your exercise and lighten your diet, decreasing especially your intake of processed foods, sweets, and starchy snacks.

• Misdiagnosis. Here's a scary — and common — scenario. A woman in her 50s complains to her doctor about persistent chest pain. He sends her for a stress test, but even if that's abnormal, as long as testing reveals no major blockages, he assures her nothing's wrong. The reality: Almost 50 percent of women with abnormal stress testing and open coronary arteries have microvascular coronary dysfunction, in which the heart's smallest arteries don't dilate properly and blood flow is restricted. It can increase your risk for sudden cardiac death, heart attack, or other serious problems by 2.5 percent each year. "Your doctor may dismiss your symptoms as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or anxiety," says Dr. Bairey Merz, "especially if initial tests come back borderline." So insist on getting a full evaluation that could reveal micro problems.

Did you know that a recent study, called JUPITER, found that healthy women over age 60 might lower their heart attack risk still further by taking a cholesterol-lowering statin (Crestor) — even if their cholesterol levels are normal? This advice may not apply to you, but it does point up that you should keep up-to-date on the latest advances (along with following heart-healthy diet and exercise routines, of course). So at every visit, ask your doctor about new research, and then find out if there's a way for you to benefit.

After all, it's your heart — and you don't want it to be broken.

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 50S, 60s & Beyond:
• Routine screens: at least every two years; more often if you have multiple risk factors
• Redo a "global risk estimation" every time a risk factor, such as your blood pressure or weight, changes

Originally published on January 29, 2010

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