By Elizabeth Langford
Did you know that more women die from cardiovascular disease annually compared to men?
There is a common misconception that men are more at risk for cardiac events. However, statistics show that cardiovascular disease is more prevalent in females**. Differences in male and female hormone levels explain why incidence of cardiovascular disease occurs in men at earlier ages compared to women.
Hormonal Differences: Estrogen
It is well known that estrogen is a female hormone. Females have higher levels of estrogen circulating in their bodies pre-menopause. Estrogen has several functions in the body. Commonly it is identified as a sex hormone, but it also enhances blood flow and affects lipid and cholesterol levels.
Therefore, the presence of higher estrogen levels in females accounts for the following risk factors:
Estrogen prevents the constriction of blood vessels which lowers blood pressure. This is why the prevalence of hypertension is quite low in females until menopause. At menopause, levels of estrogen are lowered and the effect is lost. By age 60, more women than men have hypertension**.
Similarly, triglyceride (fat) levels in the body are lower in pre-menopausal women compared to post-menopausal women. Hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels in the blood) is a risk factor for development of cardiovascular disease in men and women.
Triglycerides levels increase with age in both genders, although at a slower rate in women. But by age 70, levels are the same between genders.
Understanding the protection of estrogen pre-menopause is important for understanding why post-menopause, women’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease significantly increases.
Therefore, the best way to prevent cardiovascular disease in females is to maintain a healthy blood pressure and keep triglyceride levels low! This becomes especially important for post-menopausal women as estrogen levels no longer protect against heart disease development.
Healthy Blood Pressure
- Do not smoke and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke
- Limit alcohol intake
- Lower sodium intake
- Maintain a healthy weight through physical activity and healthy eating
- Manage stress by doing things you enjoy
Healthy Triglyceride Levels
- Consume omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)*
- Lower saturated fat intake
- Participate in regular physical activity – 30 minutes, 5 days per week!
* Chan, E.J., and Cho, L. (2009). What can we expect from omega-3 fatty acids? Cleveland clinic journal of medicine, 76(4):245-251.
** Jarvie, J.L. and Foody, J.M. (2010). Recognizing and Improving Health Care Disparities in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Women. Current cardiology reports, 12 (6):488-496.
The articles, on the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada website, are presented with the understanding that the Foundation is providing information only and not rendering medical advice. Please check with your family physician, specialist or health care professional before implementing any of the ideas expressed in these articles.