Judging by the way it's portrayed in movies and TV (60-something guy suddenly clutching his arm in pain = heart attack), young women simply don't get heart disease. But experts know that is very wrong. In fact, according to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the U.S. And, just a few months after Carrie Fisher's tragic death, we're more aware than ever of the need for women to keep an eye on their heart health — including their blood pressure. And don't think that just because you're young you're immune to high blood pressure: a 2011 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that nearly one in five people between the ages of 24 and 32 had high blood pressure. Luckily, a few basic lifestyle practices can help you lower it or keep it where it needs to be.
The cutoff for a healthy blood pressure reading is the same for men and women: You want to be below 120 systolic and below 80 diastolic, so a reading below 120/80 is considered healthy. If either number gets higher than that, your doctor will talk to you about adopting some healthier lifestyle habits and, possibly, taking medication to lower your blood pressure.
So what might those lifestyle changes involve? According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the most important lifestyle factors for heart health are your diet and your activity level. In terms of nutrition, you should be sticking with lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and legumes. But you should avoid too much red meat, sugary drinks, and foods that are especially high in sodium or saturated and trans fats.
That also means keeping your alcohol consumption in check as much as possible. Unfortunately, the CDC recommends that women have no more than one drink per day (including "heart healthy" red wine). Although there may be some wiggle room there, you'll have to talk to your doctor to find out how much there is for you — if you're trying to keep your blood pressure under control, it may be especially important that you stay within those strict guidelines.
When it comes to exercising, the AHA recommends healthy adults get a total of two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week. If you're trying to lower your blood pressure, it suggests working out in 40-minute chunks three or four times per week. What does "moderate" mean? You should be working at a level where you're still able to speak in short sentences, but you can't have a full conversation with your workout buddy. If you find yourself getting into full Gossip Mode, you're probably not working hard enough.
All of this will also help you maintain a healthy weight, another factor in your risk for heart disease. But, if you're concerned about your blood pressure, the best thing to do is check in with your doctor. She can talk you through all the different factors that affect your heart health and help you come up with a reasonable plan to keep your ticker ticking along.