Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

It's not, however, completely beyond your control. While heart disease does often stem from genetic or hereditary factors, there are a number of aspects of the condition that you can regulate. In fact, a recent study suggests that taking on a diet rich in soy products may considerably strengthen heart health in women, particularly if done prior to menopause.

What is soy?

Soy comes from the soya plant, a common Asian vegetation. Though the finished product is referred to almost exclusively as "soy" in the United States, many parts of the world call it by the name of its origin, soya. Soy is popular as a substitute for traditional proteins, and it can be found as soy milk, tofu, and other primary and supplementary foods. In the past, soy has been associated with a number of medical benefits, including reducing the risk of prostate cancer.

The study

Scientists researching heart disease at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina were attempting to measure the effects of a soy-rich diet on atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which arteries are clogged with plaques and fat cells, and it has been linked to increased risks of heart attack and stroke for some time. The ailment also restricts blood flow throughout some of the body's main arteries.

In order to measure the possible effects of soy, the scientists gathered two groups of premenopausal monkeys and altered their eating habits. The first group received a diet rich in animal proteins and meat, while the other group was fed a regimen higher in soy protein. Later, to induce menopause among both groups, the scientists removed the monkeys' ovaries. Following this, four groups were formed from the original two. Two groups maintained their original diet, heavy in either meat or soy, while the other two swapped to whichever they had not been assigned to.

While plaque levels among the four groups seemed to be similar, the scientists did note that they were lower in those monkeys who had a lifelong soy-based diet. Also, the monkeys who were on a soy diet during both pre- and post- menopause stages demonstrated healthy cholesterol levels, while those who switched to soy after menopause demonstrated a notable improvement in cholesterol levels.

Conclusions

Considering the healthy cholesterol levels displayed by the monkeys who were eating soy both before and after menopause, as well as the improvement noted in those who switched to soy after, the researchers concluded a soy diet may be beneficial to heart health in women. The researchers believe that it could be particularly helpful if adopted prior to menopause, as the effects of establishing good health earlier in life extend into postmenopausal years.