Deadlines, budgets, family responsibilities and chores—it all adds up to too much stress, a leading factor in the No. 1 killer of women. Practice our working-mom strategies to fight heart disease, and have a little more fun as you do.
Her mother died from a heart attack at age 38, so Lisa Laesch-Vanstone, 25, had been careful to fend off cardiac troubles with exercise and a healthy diet. But she wasn’t as careful about anxiety. “I’m a perpetual worrier and put a lot of pressure on myself to excel”—at her job as a children’s library aide, at her marriage and at parenting, says the Movi, MI, mom. “So I was in a state of constant stress.” Even before her son, parker, now 16 months, was born, Lisa’s stress level was scary. She began experiencing stabbing chest pains. Lisa’s doctor said her blood pressure was so high that she was in atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood effectively that can lead to a stroke. She was prescribed medication but was told these early heart problems were mostly due to stress—which she had to control on her own.
Most of us already know the statistic: “Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women in the U.S.,” says John M. Kennedy, MD, author of The 15 Minute Heart Cure. “Women are constantly told to get mammograms and pap smears, but they’re rarely advised to see an internist and get their heart disease risks evaluated.” And while many of us are aware of risk factors like family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, one prime trigger we tend to overlook is stress. Which is why Dr. Kennedy notes that a stress test can be an important heart-health evaluation tool, along with the other usual physiological tests. If you aren’t yet convinced to take care of your heart, consider recent research that points directly at working moms.
Work and Worry
Women who report high job stress have a 40 percent higher risk for cardiovascular disease than their lower-stress peers, according to the recent landmark harvard women’s health study. The research also found that women’s fear of job loss was associated with risk factors for high blood pressure, increased cholesterol and excess body weight. Other large studies in denmark and china had similar findings. Of course, an unappreciative boss, difficult co-workers and huge responsibilities can contribute to work stress. And we all know a working mom’s tension doesn’t turn off at 5 p.m. Add other daily pressures like rush hour traffic, homework battles, spousal friction and mounting bills to the anxiety equation and you’ll understand why Duke University Medical Center researchers found that working women with even one child have higher stress levels and risk for health problems like heart attacks.
How does stress lead to cardiac problems? There are direct and indirect toxic effects of stress, according to Dr. Kennedy. Emotional stress stimulates your “fight or flight response,” which triggers the flow of stress hormones. Too much stress, too many hormones that may trigger direct effects including increased blood pressure, heart rate and inflammation in the body—all of which can fuel heart issues. Indirect effects result from eating more, exercising less, excessive drinking and especially smoking in response to stressful situations. These, too, can contribute to high blood pressure and poor heart health. “Stress is inevitable,” says Jennifer Mieres, MD, associate professor of cardiology at Hofstra North Shore LIJ School of Medicine in Mempstead, NY. “Learning how to cope and relax is what’s important for keeping your heart healthy.”
Reduce Your Risk
“Men and women both experience stress at work,” says Jaffar Raza, MD, attending interventional cardiologist at Lenox Hill Heart and Vascular Institute in New York City, “but women don’t seem to handle it as well.” What’s more, time-crunched moms too often sidestep healthy stress remedies for quick coping habits like eating junk food or smoking, which themselves can stress the heart. A better choice: explore effective ways to deal with anxiety and find out what works for you. You may not be able to avoid deadlines and diapers, but you can ease the negative effects of stress and protect your heart with small life improvements.
Turn Off Stress
If you can solve or avoid a stressful situation, do it. Talk out a conflict with your boss or colleague rather than stifling frustrations. Set a time to shut off your blackberry in the evening so you have a peaceful period with no work worries. It turns out that moms are more likely than dads to feel guilt and stress from after-hours, work-related use of smartphones, laptops and iPads, a new University of Toronto study shows. And the 24/7 work connection also means “you never get away from the stress,” adds Dr. Raza. A break from technology can mean a break from anxiety, at least for a while.
Cultivate a Healthy Chill
Grabbing a snack from the vending machine or sneaking out of the office early for a few cocktails with friends might help you ease stress temporarily, but neither is heart smart. A better chill choice is the brief relaxation routine Dr. Kennedy advocates in his book, called the b-r-e-a-t-h-e technique (begin, relax, envision, apply, treat, heal, end). It combines guided imagery, breathing work and meditation to promote relaxation, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and sharpen focus and concentration.
Yoga, pilates and tai chi also focus on breathing for relaxation and to decrease cardiac risk. Not only do the poses work your muscles, which strengthens your heart, the deep, focused breaths help slow your heart rate, temporarily lower your blood pressure and quell the flow of stress hormones. Basic meditation is another stress reliever, according to recent research published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. In the study, those who meditated about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. If you just can’t squeeze in a class or session, even breaks during the workday, lunchtime walks and concentrating on your breathing patterns can help reduce your stress level. If you can go outside, so much the better, as sunshine offers mood and heart benefits.
If you’ve ever posted on Facebook about accidentally sending your child’s lunch to work with your husband and gotten a page full of comments from commiserating moms, you know how valuable a social network can be for easing stress, guilt and self-doubt. “Whether you’re concerned about your job, world events or finances, it helps to know you’re not alone,” says
Dr. Kennedy. “Social isolation increases cardiac risk, so connecting with friends and family—both in person and online—can help keep stress levels down and your heart healthier.”
Get Symptom Smart
“People who are educated about the signs of heart illness live longer because they’re aware of their own bodies, recognize changes and know when to go to a doctor to ask for help,” says Dr. Raza. Women’s heart attack symptoms are often different than men’s, so you may miss key signs. “Women are prone to milder symptoms,” adds Dr. Mieres. Chest pain, unexplained fatigue, back pain, shortness of breath and decreased exercise capacity can all indicate heart problems.
“Over time, I might have experienced these symptoms,” says Barb Hagan, 47, of East Lansing, MI, “but most women feel them all the time. I didn’t think they were signals of heart disease.” In fact, the high school teacher and mom of three, who regularly ran five miles a day, might never have realized she had a heart problem until, ironically, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She requested a copy of her post-surgery MRI results (which many women don’t do, but should) and noticed a note that said she had an enlarged ascending aorta (aneurysm), which was “unchanged from the previous MRI.” Not only did her doctors not discuss this with her, it had already been detected but never brought to her attention. Luckily, she was able to have heart surgery and is now easing back into her normal exercise routine. Her doctors say she could have died suddenly from an aneurysm had this condition not been addressed. Barb now helps educate other women by working with the Sparrow Foundation’s Women Working Wonders program, which produces a wallet card that highlights the symptoms of heart disease in women.
Stand Up and Move
When you exercise, your heart works harder to pump blood faster and therefore becomes stronger. Not only does aerobic activity have a direct effect on your cardiac health, it also contributes to weight loss, which can decrease your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart problems. simply by biking to work instead of driving, parking your car farther from your destination and taking stairs as often as possible, you can get aerobic benefit, “A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is key to a heart-healthy weight,” says Dr. Mieres. you can even lift your baby or your dog, instead of weights at the gym, to challenge your muscles. For Lisa Laesch-Vanstone, working out also offers pure stress relief: “There’s nothing like a good kickboxing session to beat worries into oblivion.” Researchers also recently found that women who sit a lot (even if they exercise) are more likely to die over a given period of time than those who sit less. While the deaths occurred for various reasons, associations were strong for cardiovascular disease mortality. So a lunchtime stroll could save your heart and your life.
People who get fewer than six hours of sleep a night are almost 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who get more sleep, revealed a recent study in the European Heart Journal. Sleep deprivation, like stress, is often unavoidable for working mothers who put in extra evening hours on their laptops and early-morning hours prepping kids for school, but it would be beneficial for your health to shut off the PC or TV at night to get in at least six hours of shut-eye. People who are sleep deprived tend to eat more, which can lead to obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Eat for Your Life
You likely know the rules by heart— plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish—but it’s tough to follow them when you’re grabbing lunch on the run or dipping into the office candy bowl. Remind yourself that omega-3 fatty acids like those in salmon and other fatty fish help decrease cholesterol, whole grains may lower blood pressure and decrease cardiac risk, and fresh produce provides heart-healthy antioxidants, potassium, folate and fiber. If your blood pressure is high, avoid the saltshaker and high-sodium processed foods. Bring fruits and veggies to work for snacks so you have sweet and crunchy alternatives to junk food.
Lisa has revamped her diet to include lean meats, less sodium, more whole grains and lots of produce. She’s gotten her blood pressure under control and, perhaps most importantly, she’s learned to let go of worries and stress as much as possible. She’s currently healthy, with no recent bouts of atrial fibrillation—and she’s off blood pressure medication. “I know I need to take care of myself,” she says. “I want to be around for my little boy for years to come.”