If there’s a history of heart health issues in your family, you’re most likely aware that your risk for heart disease—the leading killer of women—is higher. But you probably don’t think about the far lesser-known factors that can also put you at an increased risk. If any of these signs or symptoms sound familiar, know that you could be more likely to develop heart disease—and here’s what you should do.
1. Sleep that’s anything but restful.
If you awaken at night, gasping for air, or if your partner tells you that you snore loudly, you may have something called sleep apnea, which increases your risk for high blood pressure or heart arrhythmia, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of the Women’s Heart Program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Talk with your doctor about a sleep study, where you’ll be monitored overnight,” she recommends. Your doctor will then propose a treatment plan for sleep apnea, whether it’s with lifestyle changes or using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to help you breathe better and get more shuteye.
2. A complicated pregnancy in your past.
If you had a difficult pregnancy—getting diagnosed with preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or pregnancy-related high blood pressure—you could have the same risk for heart disease as a woman who failed a cardiac stress test (even if you were formerly low-risk). If you had or develop one of these complications, talk to your doctor about your personal risk and come up with a care plan, which may include closer blood pressure monitoring and a specific diet and exercise routine.
3. Gum disease.
Unfortunately, bad news at the dentist can translate into bad news for your heart. “Periodontal disease is kind of a ‘red herring’ that there’s inflammation in the body,” says Monica Aggarwal, MD, director of echocardiography at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. And that may set the stage for later heart problems. To avoid gum disease, Dr. Aggarwal says to be vigilant with your dental hygiene and see your dentist every six months, even if things seem fine.
4. A spouse who smokes.
If you’ve quit smoking or never started in the first place, pat yourself on the back—but unfortunately, you’re not in the clear for heart problems. “People don’t realize that [a person’s heart health risks from] secondhand smoke are at levels that are comparable to the smoker’s risks,” says Dr. Goldberg. Consider banning butts in your home and car—and of course, support your smoker’s efforts to quit. “Let them know they’re endangering the people that they love,” she adds.
5. A stressful job or tough boss.
Work-related stress has been found to lead to high blood pressure, physical inactivity and overeating—all of which are known contributing factors to heart disease. While you probably can’t quit your job or get a new manager anytime soon, double your efforts to manage workplace stress: Take a lunchtime walk for fresh air and exercise, listen to peaceful music on your headphones and try to drink more water and less coffee throughout the day.
6. A history of yo-yo dieting.
If you’re always quick to jump on the latest eating trend or diet bandwagon, beware: A 2012 study in the Journal of Gerontology found that overall, yo-yo dieting (losing weight, gaining it back again, repeat) leads to an increase and worsening of heart disease risk factors like type 2 diabetes and hypertension. “This small study reminds us to avoid ‘fad diets’ and make small simple dietary changes to sustain a healthy weight,” says Jennifer Mieres, MD, a cardiologist and medical director at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, NY. In other words, banish the concept of “dieting” for good, and permanently embrace these heart-healthy eating tips from UnitedHealthcare.
7. A Debbie-downer attitude you just can’t shake.
Depression can sometimes lead to problems because it makes it tougher to lower other risks, explains Dr. Goldberg. “People who are depressed tend to be less able, because of the depression, to follow a healthy diet, exercise more or quit smoking,” all of which hurt heart health, she says. If you believe you’re suffering from more than just the blues, alert your doctor so that he or she can include it in your risk assessment—and help you find ways to treat it, either through medication, therapy or a combination of both.
This common ailment involving patches of thick, flaky red skin is actually a sign of a troubled immune system—which may affect your heart. A recent clinical study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases found that women with psoriasis had a high risk of heart disease, says Dr. Mieres. Since psoriasis is also a sign of inflammation, other studies have linked it with premature plaque buildup in the arteries. “Women with psoriasis and other inflammatory diseases need to be screened for heart disease and receive aggressive management of their other risk factors for heart disease,” she adds, which may include statin medication to reduce the plaque buildup.
9. Huffing and puffing through your workouts.
Shortness of breath is related to obesity, a major heart disease risk factor, but it also can be an early warning sign of a heart attack, says Dr. Aggarwal. One way to know if your breathlessness is from being out of shape, or a sign of something more serious: Look at other people around you at the gym or when you’re climbing a crowded staircase. If you’re far more short of breath than others, notice progressive worsening of the shortness of breath despite slowing down, or feel nauseated or have numbness in your jaw, you should be evaluated by a doctor ASAP.
10. Living in areas prone to air pollution.
Multiple studies have shown that long-term environmental exposure to pollution may affect heart health in adults, especially post-menopausal women whose heart disease risk is increased just as much as with smoking, poor diet or obesity. If you live in an urban area, no need to start wearing a mask every time you leave the house: “An air purifier for your home can be useful in decreasing levels of pollution,” says Dr. Mieres. “And avoid situations that require long times in congested traffic or enclosed garages and parking ramps.” Women should also discuss their exposure to air pollution with their doctor when evaluating heart disease risk, she adds.For a woman who’s exposed, a doctor would monitor her heart health markers closely (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels) and work to minimize her other risk factors (smoking, lack of physical activity, obesity).