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The American Heart Association’s Guidelines for Women

Woman heart disease image
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a leading cause of death of American women. Are you at risk? The American Heart Association (AHA) offers a way to classify the likelihood of developing CVD—one that goes beyond the Framingham global risk score. The Framingham score places women in categories (from high risk to optimal) based on factors like age, total cholesterol, and blood pressure. The total score has been to calculate a woman’s 10-year risk of developing the disease. The problem with this is that a low score does not necessarily reflect risk over the course of a lifetime.

With that in mind, the AHA recommends doctors take a more comprehensive view of cardiovascular risk. Adding to the Framingham score, doctors should examine the person’s medical and lifestyle history, family history of CVD, as well as other genetic conditions. The AHA aims to tackle heart disease in women by evaluating lifetime risk and determining the most appropriate preventive measures. The goals also include more aggressive tactics for those at high risk.

AHA's classification focuses on three categories: high risk, at risk, and ideal heart health. Women in the “high risk” category have one or more of the following:

Those “at risk” have one or more risk factors for CVD:

  • Smoking
  • Elevated or high blood pressure
  • Dyslipidemia (cholesterol problems or high triglycerides)
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Family history of CVD
  • Metabolic syndrome (a combination of elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and being overweight)
  • Evidence of subclinical (asymptomatic) vascular disease, such as coronary calcification
  • Poor exercise capacity on treadmill test and/or abnormal heart rate after stopping exercise
  • Systemic autoimmune collagen-vascular disease, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • History of pre-eclampsia , gestational diabetes , or pregnancy-induced hypertension

Women in the ideal heart health category have ideal cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, and fasting blood glucose values. A healthy diet, physical activity, and not smoking are also characteristic of those in this category.

There are also stroke risk factors that are sex-specific or more common in women such as:

  • The use of birth control pills
  • The use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Migraine headaches with aura
  • Depression
  • Emotional stress
Making Changes for Your Heart

The AHA recommends these lifestyle changes to prevent CVD for all women:

  • Do not smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to quit .
  • Get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables , and fiber . Twice a week try to include fish in your diet. Limit saturated fat, trans fat , sugar, and sodium .
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation. Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day.
  • If you are overweight, talk to your doctor about strategies to lose weight. Try to maintain a healthy weight for you.
Current Disease

If you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about taking omega-3 fatty acids. Your doctor should also screen you for depression .

In addition, if you have recently suffered a cardiovascular event, such as ( angina , heart attack , stroke , peripheral artery disease ) or have had heart surgery, undergo a comprehensive rehabilitative program to manage your condition and lower your risk of recurrence or other future complications.

At Risk for CVD

There are many additional interventions available if you are at risk for CVD. The AHA recommends:

  • Aiming for an optimal blood pressure reading (<120/80 mmHg) and taking blood pressure medication if needed
  • Aiming for healthy cholesterol levels (talk to your doctor about what ideal levels are for you) and taking cholesterol medication if needed
  • Controlling diabetes with diet, exercise, and medication
  • Starting aspirin therapy or other medications if your doctor recommends them


American Heart Association

Go Red for Women
American Heart Association


Canadian Cardiovascular Society

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada


American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) guidelines for secondary prevention of coronary artery disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 3, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Estimate of 10-year risk for coronary heart disease Framingham point scores. National Cholesterol Education Program. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed September 9, 2013.

Explore high blood cholesterol. Diseases and Conditions Index. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed September 12, 2012. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Explore high blood pressure. Diseases and Conditions Index. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Updated August 2, 2012. Accessed September 9, 2013.

Mosca L, Benjamin EJ, Berra K, et al. Effectiveness-based guidelines for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in women—2011 update: a guideline from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011;123(11):1243-1262.

2/7/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Guidelines for the prevention of stroke in women. Stroke. 2014 May.

Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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