Heart Attacks in Middle-Aged Women: Lower Your Risk

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on December 12, 2015
4 min read

Heart attacks only happen to old guys.”

“They say 55 is the new 40.”

Heart problems don’t run in my family, I don’t think.”

“I have too much going on to worry about that right now.”

Ever hear or tell yourself this? The truth is, women between the ages of 40 to 60 -- give or take some years -- can and do have heart attacks. Each year, about 88,000 of these middle-aged women in the U.S. will have one.

Doctors used to think that heart disease was linked to menopause, says Pamela Ouyang, MD, director of Johns Hopkins Women's Cardiovascular Health Center. But there’s no clear tie between the loss of estrogen and increased risk, Ouyang says. A woman actually has a greater chance of getting heart disease in her 60s and 70s.

This means it’s prime-time to boost your health and lower your chances of problems at a young age. You can start right now with some simple changes.

Women who think they can do it all or die trying might do just that, says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO. She’s director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Once that juggling act starts, she says, “lots of the time, the health practices and the self-care are the first to go.”

So how do you stop putting yourself last? Realize that taking care of you helps others. “It comes back to you,” Steinbaum says. “You’re not allowed to feel guilty. When you don’t spend the effort on yourself, you’re going to get sick.”

Your doctor means it. But working out doesn’t have to be a formal event. And you don't need to do it all in one session.

“Find some exercise you like,” Ouyang says. “If you force yourself to go to some class you hate, you’re never going to keep it up.”

If you’ve got a tight schedule, sneak movement into your day. Think about these hidden opportunities:

  • When you’re on a call, stand, don’t sit.
  • Find a partner and walk at lunchtime.
  • Park farther away from buildings.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or, if you’re at home, circle the block to break up the time you sit.

If you have trouble keeping stress at bay, you can’t beat transcendental meditation, Steinbaum says. This is a way to calm the mind by repeating a word or string of words over and over. And you don’t have to go to a class. You can even download apps on your phone.

If meditation's not your thing, don’t sweat it. Try to find something to do that gets your mind off your worries.

Get enough rest, too. “I think sleep is a huge issue,” Steinbaum says. “A lot of women sacrifice this major, major piece of living in favor of doing it all.”

To get better Zzz’s, start a bedtime ritual.

  • Make a list of things on your mind, or keep a night journal. This helps unload your brain.
  • Engage your senses. Feel the sheets, listen to the night sounds, and smell the air. This brings you into the present.
  • Tense your toes, hold for 10 seconds, and release for 10. Do this cycle 10 times to relax your body.

“People should be trying to keep to more of a Mediterranean-style diet, which reduces heart-clogging saturated fats” and adds healthier ones, Ouyang says.

This means it's a good idea to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and less red meat. Choose olive oil over butter and margarine, and eat more fish. If you like to drink alcohol, have small amounts of red wine.

“The other thing that would help people is [to] learn to cook and eat at home,” Ouyang says. This can also help tighten the family bonds and trim the budget.

In Western culture, we strive to look and feel young. But by the time people in the U.S. reach age 60, 50% will have heart problems, Steinbaum says.

How can you avoid them? First, learn about health issues in your background. “If you have [a] risk of heart disease in your family, you’ll have to be extra vigilant and get started right now,” she says.

Start checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, Ouyang advises. As you age, the good kinds of cholesterol in your body tend to go down. But the bad types slowly build up. Keep an eye on these things and you’ll be better able to manage them.

It’s your reaction to it that’s the killer, Steinbaum says.

Stress hormones directly lead to heart disease. Daily tensions can cause you to forget wellness. Then “you overeat. Then it leads to belly fat,” she says, and your odds of poor health go up.

“I feel we beat ourselves up too much,” Steinbaum says. “This balancing act -- there’s no such thing. ... You do the best you can, wherever you are.”