In honor of February – the month of hearts – today’s post is all about heart health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. Approximately 1 in every 4 deaths is related to heart disease, and about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack every year.1 Heart disease is known as a silent killer because there are often no symptoms until one experiences a heart attack or stroke, both of which can be fatal. In fact, 50% of men and 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary artery disease had no previous symptoms.2
Heart disease is a term that refers to many conditions that affect the heart or cardiovascular system. This includes coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, congenital heart defects, heart valve disease, heart attack, and more. While symptoms and warning signs may be similar between these conditions, each requires different treatment. It is important to talk with your health care provider to have a plan in place if you have existing heart disease.
For individuals without known heart disease, it is critical to do regular screening through appointments with your health care provider, as well as through self-assessment of your lifestyle habits. Here are 5 things you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease and/or prevent potentially fatal cardiac events if you already have heart disease:
1. Know Your Numbers. Blood pressure, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad” cholesterol) are strong indicators of risk for heart attack or stroke. Work with your health care provider to make sure you know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and take action to improve these numbers if they are too high.
- Blood Pressure should be at or below 130/90 to reduce your risk. A healthy diet, physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, quality sleep, stress management, and medicine can help to reduce blood pressure.
- Total cholesterol should be at or below 200 and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol should be less than 100. HDL cholesterol is a “good” cholesterol and adequate levels can help to reduce risk for heart disease. HDL cholesterol should be equal to or greater than 40. A healthy diet, physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and medicine can improve numbers.
- If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar. High blood sugar increases the risk for heart disease. If you need more information on this topic, talk with your health care provider.
2. Move more. Physical activity not only helps with weight loss, but also reduces stress, improves sleep, and strengthens the cardiovascular system. It is an essential factor in having a healthy heart. Adults should get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This equates to 30 minutes five days per week and includes any activity that slightly raises your heart rate while allowing you to maintain a conversation. If it helps, keep in mind you do not need to get all 30 minutes of activity at once. Break it up: take two 15-minute walks during the day; rake the leaves and later go for a bike ride; walk around the store for 10 minutes before shopping and later take a walk with your family. If 30 minutes of activity seems too difficult, just start somewhere: stand for 5 minutes 5 times per day, take the stairs instead of the elevator, get off the bus a stop early, park further from the door, take the long way back to your desk after making copies. Wherever you are starting, simply find ways to move more. (If you want to start a more vigorous exercise routine, talk with your health care provider first to ensure safety.)
3. Eat a healthy diet. Our food choices have a huge impact on our overall health, and the great news is a single well-balanced diet can address a myriad of health problems. Choose nutrient-rich foods with lots of fiber such as fruits, veggies (especially the non-starchy colorful ones), whole grains, nuts, and beans most of the time; and round out the diet with moderate portions of low-fat dairy and lean animal protein (if you choose), such as fish, seafood, poultry, and eggs. Limit red meat, high fat cheese, and cream-based dressings and sauces. Avoid fried foods, processed foods, and sugary drinks. Alcohol should be limited to a maximum of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Nothing needs to be off-limits entirely, but portions and frequency do matter. Saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and salt are the biggest contributors to heart disease.
4. Lower your stress level. Stress creates toxic reactions in the body and can also lead to unhealthy behaviors. Find healthy coping strategies and methods for relaxation that you can use daily. Take a walk, sit in nature, call a friend, read or write, color, enjoy a long bath or shower, breathe deeply, meditate, establish a routine that supports restful sleep, seek help from a counselor. Self-care is critical to good health and longevity.
5. Quit smoking. Smoking damages blood vessels, speeds up hardening of the arteries, and greatly increases risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk with your health care provider about options to help you quit. You might start by reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke daily; this can have a great impact on your health, too.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Heart Disease Facts. Accessed February 18, 2019. Website: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
- Roger VL, Go AS, Lloyd-Jones DM, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2012 update: a report from the American Heart Association External. Circulation. 2012;125(1):e2–220.