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woman feeling stressed sitting against wall holding her head in her hands
February 9, 2021

Stress, The Pandemic and Women’s Heart Health

“The pandemic is raising the stress level of many people,” said Simone Fearon, MD, physician leader with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care in Appleton. “Women seemingly may be experiencing increased stress at a greater rate than men. That’s concerning for women’s current and long-term heart health.”

ThedaCare Cardiologist Discusses Ways to Stay Healthy

February 9, 2021

APPLETON, Wis. – Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women, with stress often identified as a major contributing factor. The coronavirus pandemic certainly has increased the world’s stress level.

woman feeling stressed sitting against wall holding her head in her hands

“The pandemic is raising the stress level of many people,” said Simone Fearon, MD, physician leader with ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care in Appleton. “Women seemingly may be experiencing increased stress at a greater rate than men. That’s concerning for women’s current and long-term heart health.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently highlighted a study that reported “Women accounted for 55 percent of the 20.5 million workers who became unemployed in April 2020 [because of the pandemic], compared to 13 percent for men….The coronavirus crisis has battered industry sectors in which women’s employment is more concentrated—such as restaurants and other retail establishments, hospitality, and health care.”

That study also noted that school and daycare shutdowns due to the virus put more responsibility for childcare on the shoulders of women, along with the need to assist children with virtual learning. In addition, women tend to have fewer jobs that accommodate telecommuting, and many middle-aged women also are often involved in caring for older parents.

“All those responsibilities can create a level of stress that is hard to cope with,” said Dr. Fearon. “That makes it important for health care providers to watch for stress-related health changes in their patients, such as weight gain, increased blood pressure readings and other indicators. It is also important that women make taking care of their health a priority. We are learning the health issues women face in middle age can have a significant effect on their long-term heart health.”

A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAMA) focused on women between the ages of 42 to 61 and identified seven markers – Life’s Simple 7 – that can indicate a woman’s likelihood to develop heart disease. The list includes these factors and their suggested ideal results:

  • Body mass index – less than 25
  • Physical activity – 150 minutes/week of moderate activity
  • Diet – more fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains; less sugar and sodium
  • Blood pressure – less than 120/80
  • Cholesterol levels – less than 200
  • Blood sugar – less than 100 mg/dL
  • Smoking – lifetime non-smoking preferred or having quit for more than a year

Dr. Fearon said the JAMA study reported that “…women who felt more stressed at their jobs or in their roles as caregivers, mothers and spouses had greater odds of having high blood pressure, being overweight and not eating a healthy diet.”

The JAMA study further noted the middle-age years are a critical time for health, especially for women.

“In addition to physical and mental changes, women may be taking care of both children and aging parents, and their relationships with their spouses and jobs may also be changing,” said Dr. Fearon. “What happens to a person during these years has direct consequences for their health and well-being as they progress into old age, when they become more likely to experience physical illness or disability.”

So what can women do to reduce their stress levels and improve cardiac health? Dr. Fearon said there are many options.

“First and foremost, try to reduce the occasions that cause you to become stressed,” she said. “Then focus on improving your health: stop smoking, eat healthy food, maintain good sleep habits, get regular physical activity as well as all recommended health screenings. Regular exercise, such as walking, cycling, swimming, playing tennis, yoga and outdoor activities such as gardening, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing, will benefit both your mental and physical health.”

Dr. Fearon said it’s also important to maintain a positive attitude.

“It’s proven that positive thinking helps us mentally and physically,” she explained. “Focus on the good things in your life, and it might help push out some of those negative thoughts.”

She also encourages women to engage regularly with friends.

“That’s a little more difficult during the current pandemic and especially in winter months, but don’t underestimate the power of a good chat with a friend,” she said. “Social interaction is important for all of us, even if it has to be via phone or Zoom.”

Lastly she noted it is important for everyone to have a hobby or two to give themselves something different to think about.

“Hobbies provide a great way for us to relax, to focus our attention on something we enjoy and to have a little ‘me’ time,” she said. “Moms, especially, often allow themselves to become so busy they forget to take ‘me’ time, which in the end isn’t good for anyone in the family. We all need time to relax and unwind and do something that gives us peace and pleasure.”

Dr. Fearon encourages all people, not just women, to take it one day at a time.“The current pandemic is unlike anything the world has experienced in the last 100 years,” she said. “It’s not unusual that people are experiencing increased stress. We shouldn’t become stressed about having stress. Instead, let’s seek ways to counteract it. If we put more focus on doing things to improve our physical and mental health and reach out to family, friends and/or medical professionals to support our needs, we can help one another weather this pandemic and go on to lead healthier lives.”