"The really frightening thing about middle age is knowing you’ll grow out of it.”
— Doris Day
These days, many women like hearing that 40 is the new 30, but recent studies point to declining life expectancy rates among American women, as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure rates increase. Many women do know that they face significant heart health hurdles as they head into their golden years, but successfully navigating those challenges can be tricky for someone of any age. And, while American women can still expect an average life expectancy of around 80 years of age, it’s no fun to spend those years in poor health.
Female physiology is a key factor in heart disease among older women, creating unique health concerns that are not shared by men as they age, possibly because women experience a dramatic decrease in estrogen after menopause. The Women’s Health Initiative
(WHI), a 15-year study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, looked at trends in cardiovascular disease among postmenopausal women; the long-term study began in 1991 and included over 68,000 participants between the ages of 50 and 79.
Researchers examined how hormone therapy affected heart disease, eventually concluding that estrogen supplements did not reduce the risk of heart attack in postmenopausal women and actually increased the risk of stroke. The American Heart Association currently recommends that women should not take hormone therapy to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Menopause is not the only heart disease risk factor facing women as they age. Stress is also a major concern, and was cited by researchers at Wake Forest University Medical Center, who found evidence that factors such as stress, lack of exercise, and poor diet may increase heart disease risk among younger women that will only worsen as they enter menopause. Financial disparities can also affect women’s health as they age, often because they spend less overall years in the workforce than men, resulting in lower retirement benefits, and also because they may live with disabilities longer than men -- simply because women live longer than men.
And the research continues. A 2009 study concluded that increased risk of heart disease in older women may be linked to the natural rise in testosterone levels that accompanies menopause — causing researchers to rethink the theory that premenopausal women’s hearts are protected by estrogen.
Your longevity is a gift that you should enjoy, so knowing that women face increased heart health risks with age could be the key to your success. Jay Kaplan, PhD, of the Wake Forest University Medical Center, suggests that pre-menopausal women should be thinking about heart disease prevention before their risk factors increase, saying "We found that the five years before menopause are when heart vessel disease begins to accelerate.” That being said, now is the time to invest in your heart — no matter what your age — through a heart-healthy diet, daily exercise, giving up tobacco, and enjoying a well-deserved break now and then.
And if 40 is the new 30, then that must mean that 60 is the new 50 — so take heart!