For Women: Know Your Risk of Heart Disease

Belly fat is more dangerous than fat in other areas (think thighs and hips) because it boosts inflammation and has been linked to atherosclerosis, a definite risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, investigators have found that normal weight people with central obesity (belly fat) are at a three times greater risk of dying from heart disease than those without central obesity (no belly fat). Let's look at some of the factors that can add to our waistlines and increase our risk of heart disease in other ways.

Get a Good Night's Sleep

Your risk of cardiovascular disease goes up when you get less than 6 hours, and more than 9 hours of sleep per night. The sweet spot for sleep is between 7 to 8 hours each night. A 10-year study from Harvard University tracked the sleep habits and health of more than 70,000 women who had no previous history of heart disease. In the end, 934 of these women suffered from coronary heart disease and 271 died from it. Five percent of the women in the study slept less than five hours per night. Women who slept more than nine hours per night were 37 percent more likely to have heart trouble.

Other ways poor sleep boosts your risk of heart disease? Short-term sleep deprivation is known to raise blood pressure and stress hormones, and can also lower glucose tolerance and even lead to irregular heartbeats. Research has shown that people with sleep apnea also show marked increases in their blood pressure over the years.

More: How Sleep Improves Cardio Performance

Watch Your Blood Sugar

The American Heart Association considers diabetes one of the six major controllable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Insulin resistance, in addition to other risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and high triglycerides—boosts the risk of heart disease and stroke. Chronically high blood sugar can interfere with the proper function of blood vessels, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease. Be sure to get your blood sugar checked. If it's high, ask your doctor for help to get it under control, including advice on eating a low-glycemic index diet. That means balancing your carbohydrate intake across the day and avoiding or cutting back on all refined grains and sugars. Instead, increase intakes of whole-grains, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids—like salmon, almonds and edamame.

More: Learn How Low-Glycemic Carbs Steady Blood Sugar

Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption

There's ample research on why a glass of alcohol a day can be good for our heart. Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine in particular, dampens artery-damaging inflammation and helps lower blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol. However, don't start a drinking habit (of even one glass a night) unless you consult with your doctor first, to make sure you don't have other health problems (e.g., liver disease or pancreatitis) that might be aggravated by alcohol. And keep in mind that excessive drinking—even one to three glasses a night—can increase heart palpations, raise blood pressure, and damage your liver and heart. So keep your red wine or cocktails to one serving a night, or get your resveratrol from red grapes or other berries.

More: The Health Benefits of Red Wine

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