Heart disease in women: 8 ways to protect yourself

Heart disease is commonly thought to be a men’s health problem. But this is your issue too. Here's eight simple steps to help women protect themselves.

Heart disease is the cause of death in more than half of all European women, and kills significantly more women than breast cancer. In the years following menopause, your risk of developing heart disease is at its highest. But there are ways to lower your risk.

Get a health check

If you’re over 40, or overweight, ask your GP about having a health check to assess your risk of developing heart disease. This will include checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If your blood pressure or cholesterol levels are higher than they should be, this increases your risk of heart disease.

Stop smoking

Women who smoke are at higher risk of heart attack than men who smoke. Smoking 3 – 5 cigarettes a day more than doubles a woman’s risk of heart attack. A man would have to smoke 6 – 9 cigarettes a day to double his risk. 

Lose weight if you need to

About six in ten women in England are overweight or obese. Carrying excess weight puts a strain on your heart, and you’re more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which also increase the risk of heart disease.

Do more exercise to prevent heart disease

Only about one in four women in England does enough physical activity to protect her heart. Try to do more exercise, including regular aerobic exercise such as walking and swimming. For a healthy heart, you should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as cycling or fast walking) every week.

Shape shift 

Your shape matters as well as your weight. Like many women aged 40-60, you may be apple shaped, where excess weight settles around your waist. Being apple shaped puts you at higher risk of heart disease than being pear shaped, where excess weight is concentrated on the hips. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is to aim for a waistline of less than 80cm (31.5in). Develop an exercise plan that includes walking, squats and lunges to achieve this.

Drink in moderation

Drinking a little alcohol regularly may be good for your heart, but make sure you stay within the recommended limits. Heart-healthy drinking for women is one or two units of alcohol a day. Too much alcohol, or binge-drinking, can damage the heart muscle leading to abnormal heart rhythms or heart failure.

Balance your diet

Eat healthily and be especially careful not to eat more salt than is recommended (no more than 6g a day) and to cut down on the amount of saturated fat you eat.

Manage your stress

Some studies have suggested that stress can contribute to heart disease. If you feel under a lot of stress, it’s important to learn how to relax. There are some simple, everyday techniques you can do to help you cope. If you feel so stressed and anxious that it’s affecting your daily life, speak to your GP. 

Last updated Tuesday 2 January 2024

First published on Tuesday 15 September 2015