About 735,000 Americans have heart attacks each year, some with fatal results. In all, heart disease takes the lives of over 370,000 U.S. adults annually, making it the country’s leading cause of deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If your mother or father, or both, had a heart attack – or a sibling has heart disease and you’ve learned your cholesterol and blood pressure are far out of the healthy range – you may worry your own ticker is slated for serious trouble sooner than later. And you might be right, unless you take control of your cardiovascular health.
Cardiologist Laurence Sperling, MD, director of the Emory Heart Disease Prevention Center, and other researchers have found therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLC) can greatly lower the odds you’ll face a heart attack or other cardiovascular woes.
While it’s true there are a couple of heart disease risk factors you can’t change, including your age and family history, they don’t doom you to heart disease.
“Even if you learn you are at high risk for heart disease, there's no reason to panic,” Sperling said. “Instead, there are a host of proven ways you can work with your doctor to lower those risks to prevent future heart attacks and strokes."
"Knowledge truly is power when it comes to your heart health,” said Sperling, MD, professor of medicine at the Emory University School of medicine. “TLC involves strategies to prevent heart disease that have been well researched. They include getting regular exercise, working on weight management, and keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.”
In all, seven factors and behaviors you can control have the biggest impact on your heart health, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). They all involve following a lifestyle that helps instead of hurts your heart by paying attention to your weight, diet, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, blood sugar levels, activity levels, and making the decision not to smoke.
“You need to consciously make healthy choices and actively participate in taking control of your cardiovascular health,” Sperling said. “The three steps to achieving cardiovascular risk reduction through TLC are knowledge, behavioral change, and maintenance of behavioral change. It takes effort, but it is well worth it to lower your risk of heart disease.”
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the top ways to prevent heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, too. And for most of us, that means getting serious about weight loss. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of all U.S. adults are overweight or obese, according to the AHA.
Eating a heart healthy diet is more than cutting back on excess calories. What you consume also influences your cholesterol level and blood pressure. Read nutrition labels and avoid saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and added sugars, the AHA advises. The Mediterranean diet, which incorporates an abundance of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oils, and unrefined cereals, is a heart-healthy diet that can lower heart attack risk.
“There is consistent clinical trial and basic science evidence showing the Mediterranean diet has cardioprotective effects, in primary as well as secondary prevention of acute and fatal heart attacks,” Sperling says.
If you want to improve and protect your heart health, get up off the couch. Daily physical activity, including walking or exercising in other ways, for at least 30 minutes five times per week will reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to the CDC.
Taking charge of your heart health involves knowing your blood pressure numbers. Hypertension is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but weight loss, regular exercise, and medication, if needed, can lower blood pressure and prevent wear and tear on your cardiovascular system.
Pay attention to your blood glucose levels, too. Over time, high blood glucose (also called blood sugar) can damage your heart and other organs, the AHA warns. If a check-up shows your blood glucose is in the prediabetes level, losing weight and exercising can often help prevent type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease and a risk factor for heart disease. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, work with your doctor to keep your blood glucose under control.
Knowing your cholesterol level and ratio of HDL/LDL lipoproteins and taking action if needed can also lower your risk of heart problems. There are two main kinds of lipoproteins – the “good” high-density (HDL) and the “bad” low-density (LDL) variety. HDL helps remove cholesterol from your body. Excess LDL can lead to blockages in your arteries as fatty deposits, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Losing weight, eating healthy, exercising regularly, and taking the prescription drugs known as statins if lifestyle changes aren’t enough, can lower your cholesterol levels to the healthy range.
If you smoke, you are putting your heart in danger every time you light up. In fact, one out of every three deaths from cardiovascular disease results from smoking, according to the CDC. Quitting the nicotine habit is one of the best ways you can protect your heart.
May 11, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA