Heart disease may pose a grave threat to women's health, but no one needs to take it lying down. Statin drugs (Zocor, Lipitor, Pravachol and others) can slash a woman's heart-attack risk by more than a third--just as they do in men. And though studies are still underway, there are good reasons to think that high-risk women may benefit from aspirin as well. Should you be taking one of these medications?
The optimal total cholesterol level is 200mg/dL or lower. But the real treatment target is low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the form of blood fat that settles into artery walls. And doctors evaluate cholesterol readings within the context of other risk factors.
If you have high cholesterol and aren't taking a statin, call your doctor and ask if you should be. Even if your LDL isn't high, but you're at high risk because of diabetes or existing heart disease, the American Heart Association says that you should be on one of these drugs. We agree. Besides lowering cholesterol, these drugs help reduce blood levels of CRP, an inflammatory protein that is associated with heart attacks in women. To gauge your overall risk of a heart attack, and the likelihood that you'll benefit from treatment, visit health.harvard.edu/newsweek.
In addition to statins, the AHA recommends daily aspirin (either a low-dose 81mg dose or a standard 325mg tablet) for women at high risk of a heart attack. Aspirin therapy can reduce anyone's risk of a fatal blood clot, but it can cause bleeding, especially in the digestive tract. As a result, experts do not recommend it for women who are already at low risk of a heart attack. The exact balance of risks and benefits is still unclear, but researchers are now studying aspirin and heart disease in women. New findings are expected this year.
Whatever your risk profile, don't underestimate the power of lifestyle changes. Last year a Canadian study found that a meatless diet rich in fruits, vegetables, soy protein, almonds and plant sterols lowered LDL cholesterol by 30 percent--just as much as a low-fat diet with a statin. If kept up long term, that alone could cut your risk of a heart attack in half.