To Your Health

Women Can Prevent Heart Disease

Q: Heart disease is common among women in my family and I am looking for ways to beat the odds. What works?

A: Heart disease among women has been largely ignored until recently, and in the past a woman could literally be dying in the emergency room before the possibility of heart attack was considered. The situation has changed dramatically in the past decade or two, resulting in a decline in heart disease among women.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is that the power to lower the risk of heart attack is in the hands of women themselves, even when family history is against them. The Nurse's Health Study, about 80,000 women who keep track of what they eat and how they live, provides invaluable insight into this subject. A recent report derived from this study indicates that five lifestyle choices can cut the risk of heart attack by about 80%. These choices are:

• Don't smoke.

• Maintain your proper weight.

• Walk or otherwise exercise.

• Consume alcohol in moderation.

• Increase dietary consumption of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and folate.

The cloud behind this silver lining is that only 3% of women select these simple lifestyle options. Even if you can't manage all five of these options, three or four is better than none.

Sometimes success with one lifestyle change leads to success in others. For example:

• Regular exercise helps maintain proper weight.

• Cutting down on alcohol consumption may result in reduction in smoking.

• Increased fiber consumption tends to help with weight loss.

• Stopping smoking may allow more vigorous exercise.

• Increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids may boost your mood and motivate you to control alcohol intake.

If you don't already know your family history, talk to someone in your family who does. Keep in mind that a strong family history of heart problems is not a death sentence. Who knows? It may provoke you to adopt some of the lifestyle choices that will save your life. Sometimes a stumbling block can turn into a stepping stone.

Q: My 15-year-old daughter has decided to become a strict vegetarian. I admire her convictions regarding the sanctity of life, but I am concerned about her nutrition. Is there any specific nutrient she might become deficient in?

A: In the past nutritionists were more concerned about Vitamin B-12 and protein intake in vegetarians, but the highest risk of deficiency is likely zinc. Zinc is present in vegetable food sources, but it is less available for assimilation from these sources because of their high fiber content. Additionally, zinc requirements during adolescence may be the highest of any time in a person's life. Zinc is part of about 300 different enzymes in the body, but two critical functions of zinc relate to estrogen and insulin-like growth factor, two hormones that that help build bone. Bone health begins early in life, and calcium is not the only nutrient needed to ensure bone strength all through life. With careful attention to food choices, your daughter can be a healthy vegetarian.

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