Heart Health for Caregivers

5 Heart Health Tips for You and Your Friends

Although February is the month we celebrate love and the awareness of heart health, knowing more about the risk factors of heart disease -- especially for caregivers who may fall into the five risk areas -- is important all year round.

Heart Disease Kills, and Women, Especially Caregivers, Are the Target

The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us that heart disease is the number-one killer of women -- twice as many women die from stroke or cardiovascular disease than from all cancers combined, including breast cancer. Heart disease is the cause of one in three deaths every year, with someone dying every minute.

However, unlike Alzheimer's disease, which has no cure and can't be prevented, 80 percent of cardiac events in women could be avoided if women made the right choices for their hearts -- choices involving diet, exercise, and avoiding smoking.

While all women must pay attention to maintaining their heart health, studies show that caregivers are more at risk than the general population. A study by the Commonwealth Fund found that caregivers have twice the risk of developing a chronic illness such as heart disease, based in part on the prolonged stress encountered during their caregiving journey.

We know from studies conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving that people often turn to bad habits to cope with the stress of caregiving. Caregivers who reported their health was impacted also reported that they began smoking again, stopped exercising, and had no time for sound nutrition because they often relied on fast food for their meals. This, in turn, resulted in weight gain and lowered energy levels, compromising their ability to care for their loved ones.

And if the nation's 65 million caregivers become ill, who will care for their loved ones?

The challenges that caregivers face when they take on the role of caring for a loved one -- an overly busy schedule, increased stress, insomnia -- can prohibit or prevent them from finding the time to care for themselves. This is the big red flag all caregivers must pay attention to, so they can find that "me time" that can help them avoid the minefields that will otherwise blow up their self-care plans.

Go Red in February -- and All Year -- and Tell a Few Friends

To raise awareness among women, the AHA promotes its Go Red for Women campaign. The AHA began this campaign because its studies found that only 55 percent of women realize that heart disease is their top killer, and less than half know the healthy levels for blood pressure and cholesterol.

On the Go Red for Women site you'll find valuable tools such as the Go Red Heart CheckUp and information about how to stay heart healthy at any age. You'll also find important facts about the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke and how to be aware of the differences.

Tell 5 Friends and Follow These 5 Heart Health Tips

The AHA also has a campaign to have every woman tell 5 friends about heart disease prevention. Take a minute to read this list of 5 things for women over 50 to do to help prevent heart disease:

  1. Know your family history. You have a greater risk if a parent or grandparent had heart disease. A study released last year shows that a mother's stroke history can help predict her daughter's risk of heart attack or stroke.

  2. Don't smoke. That means avoiding secondhand smoke, too.

  3. Drink in moderation. While too much alcohol adds calories to your diet that can cause weight gain and increased blood pressure, four fluid ounces of red wine a day can be all right, according to some physicians.

  4. Eat a heart-healthy diet. Make sure you get lots of fruits, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as wild-caught salmon), and fiber-rich whole grains. Stick to less than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.

  5. Know your numbers. Do you know what your good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol numbers are and what they should be? How about your body mass index (BMI)? Are you getting at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day? Do you have a waist measurement of 35 inches or less? If you don't know your numbers, find out today by checking the Weight Control Information Network maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health. Find out what these numbers mean and how to maintain healthy scores.

Doing all the right things is hard enough for the average woman, but when you're caring for a loved one it becomes an even more daunting task. It's hard to find a balance between self-care and caregiving, but by taking care of your heart health you'll increase your ability to continue to be the heart of your family.

Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club and author of A Cast of Caregivers "“ Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care (Balboa Press, Feb, 2013) is a nationally recognized expert on America's 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance self-care while caring for a loved one. See full bio