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Hispanic Women And Heart Disease

How Are We Different?

When you hear the term "heart disease," what's your first reaction? Like many women, you may think, "That's a man's disease." But here's the truth: Heart disease is the #1 killer of Latinas in the United States. Thirty-four percent of Mexican-American women have cardiovascular disease. Together with stroke, heart disease accounts for a third of all deaths among Latinas — cancer, the second-leading cause of death, accounts for about a fifth.

Latinas also have high rates of some factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease, such as diabetes, overweight and obesity, and physical inactivity.

  • Nearly two of every three Latinas are overweight or obese, increasing the risk not only of heart disease but also a host of other conditions, including stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, and some cancers. If you're overweight or obese, even a small weight loss will help to lower your heart disease risk. At the very least, try not to gain more weight.
  • About 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. Another 5.7 million don't know they have it. Diabetes is on the increase for all Americans and some Latino groups have especially high rates. About two-thirds of those with diabetes die of a heart or blood vessel disease.
  • If there is too much cholesterol and fat in your blood it builds up in the walls of vessels that supply blood to the heart and can lead to blockages. A "lipoprotein profile" tests your levels of total, LDL ("bad"), and HDL ("good") cholesterol, and triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood.
  • Nearly 60 percent of Latinas are physically inactive — they do no spare-time physical activity. Regular physical activity lowers your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, and diabetes.
What Can I Do?

There's good news too: You can take action and lower your chance of developing heart disease and its risk factors. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82% just by leading a healthy lifestyle. This fact sheet gives steps you can take to protect your heart health.

Follow these guidelines:

  • Don't smoke. There's no safe way to smoke. But quit and, just one year later, your heart disease risk will drop by more than half. It's not easy to quit but make a plan and you can do it. Or, try an organized program or medication — ask your doctor if either is right for you.
  • Know your numbers. Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol (total, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides) and blood glucose (sugar).
    • Lower cholesterol by following a heart healthy eating plan, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if needed, taking medication.
    • Lower blood pressure by following a heart healthy eating plan, including limiting your intake of salt and other forms of sodium, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if you drink alcoholic beverages, doing so in moderation (not more than one drink a day).
    • If you have high blood pressure, you also may need to take medication. One good eating plan, shown to lower elevated blood pressure, is called the DASH eating plan — for a copy of the plan, contact the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Health Information Center.
    • Lower cholesterol by following a heart healthy eating plan, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if needed, taking medication.
    • If you have diabetes, it's vital that you keep it under control. Modest changes in diet and level of physical activity can often prevent or delay the development of diabetes.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Eat whole-grain foods, vegetables, and fruit. Choose lean meats and low-fat cheese and dairy products. Limit foods that have lots of saturated fat, like butter, whole milk, baked goods, ice cream, fatty meats and cheese.
  • Lose weight. Lasting weight loss needs a change of lifestyle—adopt a healthy, lower-calorie eating plan and be physically active. Aim to lose no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. If you have a lot to lose, ask your doctor, a registered dietitian, or a qualified nutritionist for help.
  • Get moving. Try to do at least 30 minutes of a moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking on most, and preferably, all days of the week. If you need to, divide the period into shorter ones of at least 10 minutes each.
Questions To Ask My Doctor

For women who do not speak English comfortably, choosing a doctor who speaks the native language (or who has translators available) may make the health-care experience more valuable.

Talking to your doctor about any health concern is important. Let your doctor know you are working on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. First, learn what is considered normal.

  1. What is my risk for heart disease?
  2. What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
  3. What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood and food.) What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?
  4. What are my "body mass index" (BMI) and waist measurement? Do they mean that I need to lose weight for my health?
  5. What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean I'm at risk for diabetes? If so, what do I need to do about it?
  6. What other screening tests for heart disease do I need?
  7. What can you do to help me quit smoking?
  8. How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
  9. What's a heart healthy eating plan for me?
  10. How can I tell if I may be having a heart attack?

Be honest about your concerns and get all your questions answered. Make sure you understand what the doctor tells you.

For more information about disparities facing Hispanic women, visit, a website with user-friendly health information about disease prevention, detection and control for people of color.

Last updated September 30, 2010