How to Prevent Heart Disease

Find out the signs and risk factors of heart disease, and how to prevent this number one killer.

Sanaz Majd, MD
5-minute read

Pop quiz:  What is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States?

Answer:  Heart disease, otherwise known as “coronary artery disease” or CAD.

CAD kills more Americans than cancer, accidents, or anything else.  And 60,000 more women than men die of it each year.  I think that’s a pretty important topic to be aware of, no matter how old you are.  Therefore, I’m devoting this episode to heart disease in in order to assure that all my listeners know how to prevent themselves from being part of this horrible statistic.

What is Heart Disease Anyway?

Currently 8 million American women are living with a heart disease diagnosis. That’s a lot of us!  But it’s hard to learn how to prevent it if you don’t know what it is. 

Here’s a Quick and Dirty explanation: Blood vessels feed all of our organs, including our heart.  The vessels that feed the heart specifically are called the “coronary arteries.”  These arteries bring oxygen to the heart and allow it to function.  What is the function of the heart?  It’s to pump blood to the rest of the body.  That’s a super important job.  So as you can see, if the coronary arteries get plugged up and are unable to carry oxygen to the heart, the heart can malfunction and cause a brief moment lacking oxygen called “ischemia.”  Or, even worse, if that lack of oxygen is significant enough, it can cause a heart attack or what is medically referred to as a “myocardial infarction” (MI).

A heart attack is not good – the damage that it causes is irreversible.  That means that for the rest of your life, that little part of your heart that lacked oxygen died away and you can never get it back.  And sometimes if it’s severe enough, it can even cause death.

So this is why it’s important to learn how to prevent yourself from getting one in the first place.

What Are the Signs of Heart Disease?

How do you know if you are experiencing ischemia or a heart attack?  Well, the classic presentation described in medical books is chest pain and pressure on the left side, with possible radiation down the left arm, jaw, or shoulder, that is exertional (meaning triggered by exercise or activity), relieved by rest, and possibly associated with nausea, vomiting, or the sweats. 

However, not everything in the books is reality.  Heart disease can present quite atypically, most especially in women.  For women, it can present as indigestion, shortness of breath, shoulder pain, or simply even just nausea.  It can be on the right side and it may not be exertional.  Only half of all women with heart attacks experience actual chest pain, so it’s important to bring up any symptoms to your doctor, especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease.

What Are the Risk Factors of Heart Disease?

Studies have shown that the following risk factors in women can contribute to developing heart disease:

  • Diabetes

  • Smoking

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Family history of heart disease

  • HDL (the “good” cholesterol that you want to be high) level less than 47

  • Triglyceride (one “bad” cholesterol type that you want to be low) level greater than 125

  • Premature menopause (earlier than age 45)

How to Prevent Heart Disease?

To avoid heart disease, you must minimize your risk factors. As you can see from the risk factor list, there are some factors you can change and some that you simply can’t.  You may not be able to do anything about your mom or dad’s heart disease history, but you sure can stop smoking!  Here’s a list of Quick and Dirty Tips to help you prevent heart disease in the first place:

Tip #1 - Stop smoking
Follow my 8 tips to quit smoking.

Tip #2 - Control your diabetes
If you are diagnosed with diabetes, make sure you are following my advice on the “10 Things Every Diabetic Should Do.”

Tip #3 - Control your blood pressure
Check your blood pressure at the pharmacy or drug store every time you go.  It’s important to keep these numbers below 140/90, and even better yet, below 130/80.  If your numbers creep up, make an appointment to visit with your doctor to work on a plan to bring them down.

Tip #4 - Control your cholesterol
For people with a previous history of heart disease, it’s recommended that your LDL” (a “bad” cholesterol type) be kept below 100. And for those adults with no diabetes or kidney disease, the LDL should be below 130. In addition, keep your triglycerides below 125 and your HDL (a “good” cholesterol) above 47.

Tip #5 - Exercise
Get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week. Check out Get-Fit Guy’s recommendations for fast and easy workouts.

Tip #6 – Cut out dangerous foods
Limit processed or greasy fast foods. Also limit saturated and trans fats and foods high on the glycemic index. Increase your fiber intake to at least 5 servings a day.  Increase omega-3 fatty acid intake by eating more fish. 

Tip #7 - Incorporate the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet incorporates all of the tips above, that’s why it is known as a heart healthy diet. It consists of mostly plant-based foods with lots of fish and less red meat.  Healthy olive oil is the fat of choice.

Tip #8 - Limit alcohol
Don’t drink more than one drink a day, and that one drink should preferably be red wine.

Tip #9 - Take fish oil
Fish oil is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and I often recommend taking about 2,000mg of this supplement daily for those with risk factors for heart disease.

Tip #10 -Take baby aspirin
An 81mg pill of aspirin daily has some cardiovascular protection properties and is often prescribed by doctors for people with risk factors for heart disease.  Aspirin is not without side effects, however. Therefore, you should consult your personal doctor before beginning a regimen.

Tip #11 - Keep your BMI below 25
Your body mass index (BMI) is a formula that incorporates your weight and height.  Here’s a website that gives you your BMI quickly:  http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm

Now you have all the tools to keep your heart as healthy as possible.  If you have any risk factors or symptoms, make an appointment to devise a plan with your doctor and help prevent this terrible killer.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only.  This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider.  Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.