By Dr. Nina Radcliff
No matter what your age, whether you’re 20 or 60, you can make lifestyle choices that will lower your risk of heart disease; help prevent heart attack and stroke; as well as manage your health conditions and improve your overall heart health. That is the single most important walkaway understanding I want to underscore as we step into American Heart Month. You hold great power!!
A federally designated event, February marks Heart Health Month. Our nation’s heart organizations, medical communities and caring voices will join together to help make a difference in the disturbing statistics surrounding the facts that: “Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. and around the world– causing 40% of U.S. deaths.”
Yes, the staggering statistics are real – but just because we have a history of cardiovascular disease, does not mean we must fall victim to yesterday’s stats. Today, and every day, we can take steps to significantly lower our risk of heart disease and improve our heart health.
It is a great time to re-commit to a healthy lifestyle and where needed, make needed changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Cardiovascular Disease
Understanding Terms: Heart disease is actually an umbrella term for diseases that affect our heart’s structure, electrical rhythm, or circulation.
- Structural defects include problems with the heart’s valves or muscle as well as congenital (birth) defects
- Abnormal heart rhythms result when there are issues with the electrical system that are the switchboard for a steady heartbeat. This can result in our heart beating too fast, too slow, or in a chaotic manner that is unable to support sufficient or efficient pumping of blood.
- Circulatory diseases include high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. And too, the term cardiovascular disease is often used interchangeably with heart disease — but specifically refers to narrowing or blockage of the heart’s blood vessels.
The Primary Culprit of Cardiovascular Disease is Atherosclerosis: A condition that develops when a substance called plaque builds up inside the arteries–the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood. When there is an inadequate supply of oxygen, angina (chest pain), arrhythmias (abnormal beating of the heart), or a heart attack (death of heart muscle) can result.
Plaque is comprised of clumps of cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances. In fact, the term atherosclerosis stems from the Greek word athere meaning “porridge,” and sclerosis meaning “hardening.” Chronic high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and elevated low-density lipid (LDL) cholesterol levels can lead to atherosclerosis, causing damage to the inner lining of our arteries.
The plaque build-up narrows the arteries, preventing the heart from receiving adequate oxygen. And, if a blood clot forms, it can completely block blood flow. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Although atherosclerosis symptoms typically present in middle and late adulthood, the development of plaques often begins during childhood.
Risk Factors Associated with the Development of Atherosclerosis:
- High cholesterol levels
- Family history of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- “Type A” personality
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Chronic stress
- Elevated levels of stored iron
Steps to Help Protect Yourself Against Heart Disease:
Diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent and, too, possibly reverse heart disease. They are cornerstones of heart disease treatment.
- Work with your doctor. Get a check-up, along with any screenings or blood work in order to understand your specific needs clearly. And just because your body weight, exercise habits and diet are healthy, don’t think that your blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels are too. Your genes may predispose you to cardiovascular disease. Talk with your health care provider about heart-related screenings that might be important for you.
- Be Active. Physical activity and exercise can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (along with type 2 diabetes and other diseases). It can even reverse some risk factors for cardiovascular disease by helping with weight loss and lowering blood pressure.
However, if you are diagnosed with heart disease, it is possible that exercise can induce a heart attack. Before starting any exercise program, talk to your physician so you can learn to monitor activity properly.
- Eat Better. Eating the right foods can help you control your weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Follow a dietary pattern that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy choices.
- Control Cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove the LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol from the arteries.
High levels of bad cholesterol can clog your arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. Conversely high levels of good cholesterol has been shown to be protective against heart disease, stroke, and kidney injury due to atherosclerosis.
- Know your cholesterol levels. If you don’t know them, talk to your doctor about scheduling a cholesterol screening.
- Know your fats. Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease.
- Decrease “bad” cholesterol levels. Certain foods can be a “medicine” to help lower LDL levels. Some delectable delights include oatmeal, nuts, beans and legumes, olive oil, and omega-3 fats in fish.
- In some cases, diet and lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough. Your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medication to keep your cholesterol levels in check.
- Manage Blood Pressure. Staying physically active, eating a heart healthy diet, while lowering salt intake and stress, can possibly prevent the development of hypertension as well as naturally lower your blood pressure.
- A diet low in sodium and rich in foods containing potassium, calcium and magnesium—referred to as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet—may help prevent or normalize high blood pressure.
- And if diagnosed with hypertension, there are a number of medications that can help manage it. These prescriptions have maximal impact when lifestyle changes are also implemented.
- Reduce Blood Sugar – Control Diabetes. Chronically elevated blood glucose levels are damaging to blood vessels. If you have diabetes, it is imperative to keep your blood sugars under proper control. You can minimize the impact of diabetes on your body — and even prevent or delay the onset of diabetes — by eating right, controlling your weight, exercising and taking medication(s) prescribed by your doctor. In some cases, lifestyle changes result in less need for medication.
- Lose extra pounds and watch your waistline. Being overweight or obese are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure often increases as weight increases. Weight loss can produce even greater results on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar. Maintain a healthy weight.
- Stop Smoking. Going smoke-free can help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as cancer and chronic lung disease. The payoff is almost immediate. Quit smoking and you’ll lower your excess risk of developing heart disease and stroke within only a few years.
Studies estimate that 80% of heart disease can be prevented by lifestyle changes. WOW! Now that is something that can make our hearts leap in excitement—and, you hold the power!!
Making simple changes in your choices of (1) what you eat, (2) how often you exercise, (3) maintaining a healthy weight and (4) how you manage stress can help significantly lower your risk of heart disease and improve your heart health. We live in the information age – and there is great information available to help us make heart-healthy changes that can add many years to our life.
Take action for a healthier heart. Research shows that even small changes to your habits can have a surprising effect on your heart health. Regardless of age, there are things you can do to prevent, slow down, or reverse heart disease. The choices are yours – you’ve hold great power!!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.