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Laurie B. Chappell, St. Luke's Hospital

Women should manage stress to help prevent heart disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., killing 292,188 women in 2009 - that's one in every four female deaths.

Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a "man's disease," about the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the U.S. Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54 percent of women recognize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer.

Numerous studies indicate a significant connection between chronic stress and heart disease. Currently, it is difficult to know what proportion of heart disease risk is due to psychological stress that causes persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies also link stress to changes in the way the blood clots, which increases a woman's risk of a heart attack.

Many women have multiple jobs causing increased stress levels: caring for children, aging parents, managing a household, as well as working outside the home. Findings from the Women's Health Study involving 17,000 female health professionals show that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40 percent increased risk of heart disease compared with their less stressed colleagues.

Some common physical warning signs and symptoms of stress are dizziness, upset stomach, grinding teeth, headaches and muscle tension. Forgetfulness, poor memory, lack of creativity, difficulty making decisions, increased anger and mood swings, compulsive eating and depression are some of the emotional and mental signs of stress.

There are many strategies to help cope effectively with stress. Daily relaxation breathing and other forms of meditation such as yoga, prayer and guided imagery are proven techniques for lowering stress levels and increasing our ability to focus. Good time management of tasks, enjoying time with friends and family, listening to music and having a positive attitude are other helpful strategies. Managing our stress well is part of a healthy lifestyle that decreases our risks for heart disease as well as increases our quality of life.

Laurie B. Chappell, RN, MSN, is a Certified Holistic Stress Management Instructor for St. Luke's Hospital. To register for a stress management program on August 3, 2013, visit our Wellness Programs and Screenings page or call 314-542-4848.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 25, 2013.

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