Weight loss after 50: You gotta have heart

Dear Wendy,

Hey, if I were to ask you, “What’s the leading killer of women?” what would you answer?

I bet you’d guess that it’s some form of cancer, right? After all, cancer gets a huge amount of (very well-deserved) media importance these days. Pink ribbons, runs for the cure, all sorts of things remind us that cancer can kill.

Would you be surprised to learn that heart disease kills more women than all the cancers put together? Yes, women. Especially women who’ve entered—or already passed through—menopause.


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Let’s see…that would be….oh, right! Women our age. Cue scary music.

We tend to think of heart disease as a “man problem”—we’ve all heard of the men who drop dead of heart attacks while shoveling the driveway, or the high-pressure male execs who suffer heart attacks in the middle of the corporate takeover. Lord knows we see enough chest-clutching scenes in movies and on TV that we’re all pretty well aware that men and heart attacks go together like…oh, never mind. I was going to say “horse and carriage,” but that doesn’t even rhyme. Moving right along…


Our chest pain may not be the same as theirs.

As women age, our risk of heart disease starts to catch up with men’s. By the time we’re in our 60s, our risk of heart attack or stroke is the same, but our risk of dying (from either) is greater.

Sadly, as women we’re also far less likely to recognize the symptoms when we have them, and less likely to seek medical help when we need it. It’s that old “I’m not really that sick” thing that so many women do.

I’m not sure why—is it because when you’ve given birth, all other pain seems inconsequential? Or is it our habit of putting others’ needs before our own? Whatever. It’s silly, and we need to get over it.

Why am I talking about this in my series of posts on weight management after 50?

Well, the obvious reason is that a woman’s risk of heart attack and stroke is linked to a number of factors—and right there at the top of the list, you’ll find exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

In fact, even where there are no other risk conditions, being 20% overweight or more, especially with a concentration of abdominal fat (“apple” rather than “pear” shape), means you’re at significant risk. And being sedentary (getting less than half an hour of exercise per day) puts women at risk, too: lack of exercise is more likely to result in diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol…all of which are precursors to heart disease. Yay!

I know I’ve gone on (and on) about how important it is to approach this weight loss thing as a lifelong behavioural shift. And the good news about women and heart disease is that even a modest weight loss—10% of your starting weight—will make a big difference in your risk status.

So if you start at 250 pounds and lose 25, you’ll be well on your way, even though 225 pounds is nowhere near “thin.”

Of course, life offers no guarantees. Our mother’s mother was a thin slip of a woman who never weighed more than 110 pounds wringing wet. Yet she suffered from high cholesterol and high blood pressure for as long as we knew her, and she died following a series of strokes. And I’m sure we’ve all known overweight people who are healthy and vigorous—or smokers who haven’t died of cancer.

But if we’re overweight women, and we’re past the age of menopause, doesn’t it just make sense to do everything we can to reduce our risk of heart disease? To me, it’s one of the best reasons to take some serious steps to help ourselves. Here’s how you can start:

  • Work on getting your weight under control. If you’re overweight, start tracking your food, watching your intake of high-sugar foods, and focusing on getting enough protein that you’re not constantly hungry.
  • Start getting more active—build muscle mass through a couple of strength-training sessions per week, and get your body moving for at least half an hour daily.
  • If you smoke, quit. I know it’s tough to quit, and I also know that quitting can add years to your life.

And most important of all, women need to be aware that heart attacks manifest differently for us.

Ialt="IMAGE-heart-truth-campaign-logo"f you visit The Heart Truth, you’ll find a handy checklist of symptoms for heart attack and stroke. Don’t drive yourself nuts every time you’re a bit tired, but be aware that any symptoms that persist should be checked out by a doctor.  You can even print out a wallet-sized card listing the symptoms, just in case you’re concerned.

I hope you’ll never need a list like this, but as my mother-in-law used to say, “You should use it in good health.”




  1. Such important info to convey to women, especially ones who are our age – thank you for doing more than your share to encourage us to take better care of our (heart) health.

  2. This is so important and something I think about constantly. Dad had a stroke (he’s still with us but can’t use 1/2 of his body) and 3 of my grandparents died in their 60’s (thanks, Pall Mall and diet!). It is a big worry and I really need to get out and just get exercise! Thanks for writing about this.

  3. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Thank you for all this great info!

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