Taking steps to reduce heart risks
February is American Heart Month—a time to realize that heart disease is still the primary killer of both women and men in the United States. But, also know that you have the power to protect and improve your heart health.
The National Institutes of Health and other government agencies have been helping us understand heart disease so that you can live a longer, healthier life. Research has found that you can lower your risk for heart disease simply by adopting sensible health habits.
To protect your heart, the first step is to learn your own personal risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors are conditions or behaviors that make you more likely to develop a disease. Your chances that an existing disease will get worse is increased by risk factors.
Genetics - having a family history of heart disease - can’t be changed. But you do have control over some major risk factors such as physical inactivity, being overweight, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and smoking. Many people have multiple risk factors. To protect your heart, lower or eliminate as many as you can because they tend to worsen each other’s effects.
The National Institutes of Health recently published a study that underscored the importance of managing your risk factors. Scientists found that middle-aged adults with one or more elevated risk factors, such as high blood pressure, were much more likely to have a heart attack or other major heart-related event during their remaining lifetime than people with optimal levels of risk factors.
“For example, women with at least 2 major risk factors were 3 times as likely to die from heart disease as women with none or 1 risk factor,” says Dr. Susan B. Shurin, acting director of NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “You can and should make a difference in your heart health by understanding and addressing your personal risk.”
To change your heart risk factors, know your numbers. If you don’t understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation in simple language. Be especially sure you understand how to take any medication you are given. If you are worried about understanding what the doctor says, or if you have trouble hearing, bring a friend or relative with you to your appointment. You may want to ask that person to write down the doctor’s instructions for you.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for heart disease, as well as for stroke. High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because, like high cholesterol, it usually has no symptoms. Blood pressure is always reported as 2 numbers, and any numbers above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk of heart disease to determine your blood cholesterol and blood pressure.
When your heart beats, it contracts and pushes blood through the arteries to the rest of your body. This force creates pressure on the arteries. This is called systolic blood pressure. A normal systolic blood pressure is below 120. A systolic blood pressure number of 140 or higher is considered to be hypertension, or high blood pressure. The diastolic blood pressure number or the bottom number indicates the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between beats. A normal diastolic blood pressure number is less than 80. A diastolic blood pressure number of 90 or higher is considered to be hypertension or high blood pressure.
A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men raises the risk of heart disease and other serious health conditions. Fortunately, even a small weight loss (between 5% and 10% of your current weight) can help lower your risk. To learn more about weight loss and physical activity, visit the National Institutes of Health web site, http://healthyweight.nhlbi.nih.gov/.
A heart-healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Think of the colors of a rainbow in fruits and vegetables on your plate. Try to avoid saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt) and added sugar.
Regular physical activity is another powerful way to reduce your risk of heart-related problems and enjoy a host of other health benefits. To make physical activity a pleasure rather than a chore, choose activities you enjoy. Take a brisk walk, play ball, lift light weights, dance or garden. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator can make a difference.
If you happen to be a smoker, the best thing you can do for your heart is stop. People who smoke are up to 6 times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmokers. The risk of heart attack increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day. Quitting smoking will immediately begin to reduce your risk, and the benefit in reduced risk will continue to increase over time. Just one year after you stop smoking, your risk will have dropped by more than half.
The bottom line is that it’s never too late to take steps to protect your heart, and it’s also never too early. Start today to keep your heart strong. Talk to your doctor about your risk and to create an action plan. Love your heart.
Sources: The National Institutes of Health “Love your heart: take steps to reduce risks”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention “Prevention, what you can do: live a healthy lifestyle”
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