Today’s young women can have it all. A challenging career, rich family life, and advances in wrinkle prevention are making the mid-thirties and mid-forties better than ever. Unfortunately, the women of Generation Y are not heart smart. While cardiologists are celebrating a nation-wide decrease in heart-related deaths, a recent study demonstrated women between the ages of 35 to 44 had an increase in myocardial infarctions and related mortality.

Cardiovascular Specialist Dr. Mary Callahan references the Nurses Health Study, one of the largest and longest running investigations of factors influencing women’s health. The study has produced landmark data on cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many other conditions. Most importantly, the research shows that diet, physical activity and other lifestyle factors can powerfully promote better health. “Research has identified six lifestyle choices that may significantly reduce the risk of heart disease among women in the at-risk age range,” she emphasized.

Heart healthy behaviors include: not smoking; drinking no more than one alcoholic drink a day; maintaining a normal Body Mass Index (BMI); exercising at least 2.5 hours a week; watching TV for less than seven hours a week; and following a sensible diet rich in vegetables, whole grains and legumes. On the positive side, statistics indicate that non-smoking women who exercise regularly, and follow a healthy diet may lower their heart disease risk by 92 percent as compared with overweight and sedentary females who smoke. Additionally, such women demonstrate a 66 percent lower risk for such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 Diabetes which contribute to heart disease.

According to Dr. Callahan, who spends considerable time talking to her patients about lifestyle while assessing conditions and developing treatment plans, many young women are smoking, eating more fast food, and living a sedentary life. “Smoking is one of the most significant risk factors contributing to heart disease, for young women,” she explained. “Large amounts of stimulants, such as caffeine, and medications used to treat ADHD, for example, may also be heart disease risk factors for some patients.”

Although effective medications are available to treat cardiovascular conditions, minimizing the potential for heart disease through preventative behavior is the best option. “I am seeing a larger percentage of younger women whose lifestyle is setting the foundation for heart problems – although many of them participate in some type of regular exercise program. “Smoking cessation is critical,” Dr. Callahan states. “In addition to increasing the chance of heart disease at a young age, smoking is linked to osteoporosis and resulting bone fractures with the potential for a Dowager’s hump developing later in life. The benefits of exercising to maintain bone health can be erased by smoking.”

In a common sense approach to preventative cardiovascular care, Dr. Callahan advises getting up and out of the house more, schedule aerobic exercise several times a week, walk, ride a bike or take your dog for long walks. She is also a proponent of following the American Heart Association’s recommendation of a Mediterranean style diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, healthy fats, herbs and spices. Limiting or avoiding foods high in sugars, fats and artificial preservatives is also important.

Don’t wait to consult your general practitioner if you have any concerns. Your family physician, which knows your medical history and lifestyle, can refer you to a cardiologist for additional testing, if a heart problem is suspected.

Symptoms of heart disease and heart attack may include: shortness of breath, palpitations, rapid or irregular heartbeat, pain or pressure in the chest, weakness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, severe indigestion, and fatigue.  In women symptoms are different than men and can be mistaken other illnesses.

Following a heart healthy lifestyle is not difficult. “If you want to live longer and healthier for your kids and grandkids, start making a few adjustments to your lifestyle and diet,” Dr. Callahan emphasizes. She keeps snowshoes on hand for family exercise in the winter and a favorite family activity is preparing a Mediterranean pizza. “One of our favorite pizza recipes is a combination of bruschetta, yellow peppers, mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, a good tomato sauce and whole wheat pizza dough. The kids love it and it is healthy.”

By Patricia Danflous  

Mary Callahan, DO, FACC is a native New Englander who currently practices in Sandwich, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and a Master of Science degree in Animal and Nutritional Sciences. She later graduated from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine; completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and served a fellowship in Cardiovascular Disease at the Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York.

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