Looking After Heart Health in Menopause
Before menopause, women have a lower risk than men of developing coronary heart disease. However, this risk increases with menopause and the associated decline of oestrogen. Fortunately, many risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical activity can be managed with lifestyle changes.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure can be harmful to heart health, as it puts extra strain on blood vessels, leading to damage. There are many risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure. Some of these can’t be controlled, such as family history, ethnicity or age. However, other risk factors can be controlled. These include smoking, excessive alcohol intake, a diet low in fruit and vegetables and high in salt.
A simple, yet effective, dietary change to help prevent high blood pressure is to limit salt consumption to no more than 6g each day. While you might not be adding salt to your food at the dining table, most salt in a daily diet comes from pre-made or processed foods. Bread, soup and cheese are just a few high salt culprits. However, you don’t need to completely remove these foods from your diet. Instead, compare nutrition labels to find the option that's lowest in salt.
High cholesterol levels
Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the body. In moderation, cholesterol has several important roles, including supporting cell membranes and helping with the production of vitamin D. However, not all cholesterol is equal, and certain types of cholesterol can have negative implications for health.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is commonly known as ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is because excess LDL cholesterol in the body promotes a process known as atherosclerosis - the build up of fatty deposits within blood vessels, making it more difficult for blood to flow through parts of the body. If fatty deposits become too large, they can prevent blood flow in that particular blood vessel. If this happens in the coronary artery, blood flow to parts of the heart may be blocked, resulting in a heart attack.
Fortunately ‘good’ cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also exists in the body. This good HDL cholesterol removes bad LDL cholesterol from the blood and transports it to the liver, where it’s removed from the body. Therefore it’s important to maintain healthy levels of HDL cholesterol in order to protect blood vessels.
To optimise levels of HDL cholesterol and control LDL cholesterol, prioritise unsaturated fats over saturated fats. This means swapping fatty cuts of meat, such as pork or lamb, for omega-3 rich fish, such as mackerel or salmon, or switching butter for olive oil when frying.
Extra weight and obesity
Carrying extra weight increases the risk of developing heart disease. Excess weight and obesity are also risk factors for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Approximately 50% of women gain weight during perimenopause and menopause. A large proportion of this weight gain is laid down around the middle of the body (i.e. the waist). Research shows that weight gain around this middle area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than fat deposited in other areas of the body.
Simple dietary and lifestyle changes are crucial to long-term weight management. This stage of life isn’t the time for yo-yo diets anymore. Weight regain, itself, is shown to increase the risk of heart disease too. Our Back to Basics Menopause Lifestyle and Weight Management programme has been designed by Registered Dietitian Nigel Denby to support you with your weight for life.
Lack of physical activity
Modern life has made it easy to move less than ever before. From working at a desk all day, to lounging on a sofa until bed, movement has become an activity lacking in many day-to-day lives. This inactivity increases the risk of fatty deposits building up in blood vessels and high blood pressure, and can even be a contributor to weight gain.
Regular movement and exercise can support heart health by controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In addition, exercise increases energy used, making an energy deficit for weight loss easier. Exercise doesn’t just need to be attending a gym class. Going for a daily walk and boosting a step count is a great form of movement to support heart health.
There are many lifestyle changes that can support heart health during menopause, from reducing salt intake and swapping saturated for unsaturated fats, to moving more and managing weight effectively. Don’t let reductions in oestrogen and its cardio protective effects get in the way of maintaining good heart health.
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