What Women Should Know About Their Heart Health, According to Dr Kathryn Lindley


Kathryn Lindley, MD, FACC, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, shares what women can do to prioritize their heart health during National Women's Health Week and every week.

In honor of National Women's Health Week, which takes place May 12-18, 2024, Kathryn Lindley, MD, FACC, associate professor of medicine and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, highlighted how women can prioritize and advocate for their heart health.


What key messages would you like to convey to women about prioritizing their heart health?

I think some of the key things to remember are that a lot of women's heart health is really prevention. So, many of the things that lead us to have cardiovascular problems down the line—things like heart attacks, and strokes, and heart failure—really start early and are asymptomatic; things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugars. So, it's actually important that you're just taking a proactive approach to really assessing what your cardiovascular health is and if there are things that you can or should be doing to try to help protect your heart and your brain over the long term.

The other thing I would say is it's just important to remember not to deprioritize your own health. I think a lot of times, women are kind of the caretakers of the home, and so you're busy taking care of your children or your parents or your spouse, and sometimes our own heart health kind of falls to the bottom of the priority list. And it's really important that we just remember to keep that a priority, because if we're healthy, then we can help keep everyone else around as healthy as well.

What advice do you have for women with a diagnosed cardiovascular condition looking to improve their well-being?

I mean, I think it's really important that you just communicate well with your medical team. It's important that you have a team that listens to you [and] takes your concerns and your complaints seriously. And don't be afraid to ask questions and make sure that you really understand what your diagnosis is, why we're doing the testing we're doing, why we're doing the treatments that we're doing, so that you can really be an advocate for your own heart health.

What actionable steps or lifestyle modifications would you recommend for women looking to reduce their risk of heart disease and promote overall cardiovascular wellness?

Heart health really does start early. There are some really early signals that women may be at higher risk of long-term heart health problems. That includes things like pregnancy complications, so developing gestational diabetes, or high blood pressure during pregnancy, or having a baby that delivered very preterm. Those are all kind of red flags or failed stress tests that indicate to us that a patient might be at higher risk of developing heart problems down the line. Even when you're in your 20s and 30s, if you have some of those risk factors, then those are things that you should bring to your medical team and talk to you about and say, "Hey, should I undergo some additional screening?"

The other thing is that once women reach menopause, it's also a time where we really start to see their cardiovascular risk factors go up. People tend to start to gain weight, the blood pressure starts to go up, the blood sugars go up, the cholesterol goes up. And so these are kind of 2 time points in your life—during your childbearing years and then during menopause—where it's really important to start to recognize some of those silent risk factors. Things like being a little bit overweight, having high blood pressure, things that might not be causing you symptoms right now, but are things that we can work on early to try to help keep you healthy through your 50s, 60s, 70s.

Do you have different recommendations for different populations based on risk?

Pregnancy is really a key and emerging risk factor that we recognize now helps us identify patients who are at higher risk down the line. There are a lot of other conditions that specifically or disproportionately affect women that we can think about to make sure that we're not missing women who are higher risk or who need specialized care. Some of those conditions are inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, for example, things like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma. Those conditions tend to disproportionately affect women, and all that inflammation associated with those diseases seems to really be a driver for long-term negative heart outcomes as well. So, certainly, if you're a patient who has some of those inflammatory risk factors, that's really something you want to talk to your rheumatologist and your cardiologist and your primary care doctor about, and think about if we need to be a little bit more proactive with your screening and with preventive care.

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