If you are like a lot of individuals, you may think that heart disease is a problem for other people. Men often believe that they are not old enough to have a serious heart condition. Women may believe that being female provides them protection from heart disease. Sorry, wrong on all counts.
Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States of both men and women. In fact, in the United States about 600,000 people die of heart disease every year. Heart disease is an equal opportunity killer, affecting people at midlife as well as old age.
But the good thing is that heart disease is preventable. Medical research has identified factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease or having it worsen. To make a lasting difference in your heart health, you need to educate yourself about heart disease and about the habits and conditions that can raise or lower your risk. Just doing one healthy thing is not enough. To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each risk factor you have.
Every risk factor counts, and if you have more than one, they can “gang up” and worsen each other’s effect. But most risk factors can be controlled. What you cannot change are your family history of early heart disease or your age, which for women becomes a risk factor at age 55. Men are at higher risk beginning at age 45.
The American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” addresses the risk factors that you have control over – risk factors that you can modify to reduce your chance of heart disease and increase your chances of a longer, healthier life. Evaluate your risk and make the appropriate lifestyle changes.
Stop Smoking. Smoking leads to a reduced blood flow in the arteries. This reduced flow can lead to a heart attack. There is no safe way to smoke and no safe tobacco. The benefits of quitting start immediately. After a few days, your blood pressure will drop and the levels of oxygen and carbon monoxide in your bloodstream will return to normal. Just one year after quitting, your heart disease risk will drop by more than one half.
Manage Blood Pressure. High blood pressure (also called hypertension) increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure. Some 21 percent of people don’t know they have hypertension, as it is often symptomless. There are several ways to get your blood pressure under control. Follow a heart healthy eating plan, reduce your salt intake, get regular physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation – no more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men. Your doctor may also recommend medication to lower your blood pressure.
Control Cholesterol. Excess cholesterol and fat in your blood build up in the walls of the vessels that supply blood to the heart. This buildup, called plaque, can lead to blockages. A lipoprotein profile tests your levels of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, and triglycerides – a fatty substance in the blood. You can lower your cholesterol by following a heart healthy eating plan, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if needed, taking medication.
Eat Better. Eating a heart healthy diet is not only good for your heart, but good for your overall health. A diet, such as the Mediterranean diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low fat milk and milk products; includes poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts and less red meat; and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol sodium and added sugars is a good plan to follow. Paying attention to caloric intake and portion sizes is also important.
Lose Weight. The high rate of overweight and obesity in the United States is no secret. Excess weight can increase the risk of not only heart disease, but a host of other conditions, such as stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis and some cancers. Even a small amount of weight loss (10 percent of your initial weight) will help lower your heart disease risk. Lasting weight loss requires a change in lifestyle. Adopt a healthy, lower calorie eating plan, and be more physically active.
Reduce Blood Sugar. About 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes – and another 5.7 million don’t know they have it. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than adults without diabetes. Diabetes can be detected with a blood sugar test. If you have diabetes, it is vital that you keep it under control. Modest changes in diet and level of physical activity can often prevent or delay the development of diabetes.
Get Active. Even if you have no other risk factors, being physically inactive greatly boosts your chances of developing heart-related problems. The risk of heart disease increases by about 1.5 to 2.4 times in the presence of sedentary lifestyles. This increase in risk is similar to that caused by smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Try to do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. This includes brisk walking, light weightlifting, or even housecleaning or gardening. If you need to, divide the 30 minutes into shorter periods of at least 10 minutes each. Also, work activity into your daily routine, i.e. park farther away from your destination or walk to your co-workers office rather than sending an email. In addition to helping your heart, exercise will help control your weight, your stress level and your mood.
And lastly, although not part of the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7”:
Manage Your Stress. Tense muscles, a racing heartbeat and an uneasy feeling are a few of the many signs of stress. Stress can be positive, helping you survive under pressure for a short time. But stress could become a problem if your body stays on alert all the time. So, do your heart a favor – learn how to control stress. Controlling your stress makes you feel better. Figure out what makes you feel stressed. Then choose ways to relieve your stress. Learn relaxation techniques, talk, breath, write, or exercise your stress away. And, develop a positive attitude and lifestyle.
Remember, it’syour heart, and you’re in charge. By focusing on your lifestyle and habits, you can take action to reduce your risk of heart disease.
This article is not intended as a substitute for professional health care.
Article is courtesy of The Los Alamos Heart Council (www.losalamosheartcouncil.org)