How to reduce your risk for two top health threats for women
Many people know that October is breast cancer awareness month — the pink ribbons and pink products are everywhere.
However, people might not be aware that breast cancer and heart disease share many of the same risk factors. Most of these risk factors are things we are in control of and can change. If we know what to work on, we can reduce the risk for both heart disease and breast cancer, two leading health threats for women.
Shared risk factors for both heart disease and breast cancer:
- Both breast cancer and heart disease incidence increase with age, especially after menopause.
- Age at menarche and menopause are risk factors for both heart disease and breast cancer
- Early menarche (<11 years of age) is an increased risk for both CHD & breast cancer.
- Early menopause (<45 years of age) is associated with an increased risk for CHD, but a decreased risk for breast cancer.
- Late menopause (>55 years of age) is associated with a lower risk for heart disease, but an increased risk for breast cancer.
Use of combined hormone replacement therapy post-menopause
- Large randomized controlled trials show there may be an increased risk for both breast cancer and heart disease, usually with 5 or more years of use, and isn’t recommended for prevention.
- Inactivity and high amounts of sedentary behavior increases risk for both breast cancer and heart disease in both pre-and post-menopausal women.
- Carrying excess weight is an independent risk factor for heart disease.
- Excess weight is also a risk factor for breast cancer, but more specifically in post-menopausal women. Weight loss is also more challenging after menopause.
- Cigarette smoking is a major risk factor heart disease & stroke. The link between smoking and breast cancer is less conclusive, however, several studies show a weak but positive association.
- Studies have also shown an increased risk for breast cancer in women who smoked for long durations and in women who started smoking early in life.
- A Western dietary pattern (high in red meat, processed meats, refined grains added sugars) may increase risk for heart disease by 22%. An eating pattern high in plant-based foods and low in animal foods (think DASH Eating Plan or Mediterranean Diet) has been shown to lower risk for heart disease by up to 30%.
- Many large, observational studies show a 20-30% reduced risk for breast cancer with adherence to a Mediterranean-style of eating and an increased risk with an unhealthy eating pattern.
- Drinking large amounts of alcohol increases the risk for heart disease, and, is an even bigger risk factor for breast cancer (especially estrogen receptor positive breast cancer).
- Alcohol is a well-established modifiable risk factor for breast cancer in both pre-and post-menopausal women. Studies show a 5% to 9% increased risk for breast cancer per drink per day.
Ladies, while we cannot stop ourselves from getting older, we can age more gracefully by living a healthy lifestyle. In doing so, this can lower our risk for both breast cancer and heart disease.
- Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, quit.
- Move your body 150 minutes per week or more and reduce sedentary behavior.
- Aim for a healthy weight. Lose weight if needed.
- Follow a dietary pattern high in lots of plant-based foods with fiber.
- Be careful with alcohol. Aim for 1 drink or less per day.
Heather Klug is a registered dietitian with the Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.
About the Author
Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.