According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, twice as many women in the U.S. die from cardiovascular disease than from all forms of cancer combined. But being proactive about your health can greatly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, knowing your blood cholesterol levels and keeping them in check can help ward off many heart-related problems.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends having a blood pressure reading and cholesterol level check starting around age 20 and followed by cholesterol testing every five years if the readings are normal. Blood pressure and pulse readings should be done annually. However, if there is a history of cardiovascular disease in your family or if you have other risk factors, such as obesity or diabetes, check with your pediatrician about screening for children as young as age 14 or 15.

Having your blood pressure taken is quick and painless and is done by using an instrument called a sphygmomanometer in which a rubber cuff is wrapped around your upper arm and inflated to measure systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) pressures. A blood pressure reading below 120/80 mm Hg is considered normal.

A simple blood test is used to get a measurement of your cholesterol/lipid profile. To ensure an accurate reading, it's recommended that you fast for 12 hours before the procedure. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a total cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL is optimal.

The AHA heart screening guidelines also call for a baseline electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat, starting at age 40 and repeated every three to five years after the age of 60.

Reducing Your Risk Factors

To lower your chances of heart disease:

  • Quit smoking
  • Keep your blood pressure under control by maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, fish, poultry and lean meats
  • Limit alcohol consumption to one drink a day
  • Check with your doctor about increasing your physical activity