How Can I Lower My Risk of Heart Disease?

Last week I wrote about the myths of heart disease and how heart attacks present in women.  In today’s post, I’ll describe how we (both women and men) can lower our risk of this number one killer in the United States.

Heart disease in women doesn’t get the press it deserves.  But the unfortunate facts still remain.

Only 1 in 5 women thinks heart disease is her greatest health risk.

Approximately one woman a minute dies from heart disease.

Women don’t necessarily have the same symptoms of heart attack that men do.

And 90% of women have at least one risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD).

This is all pretty important news.

There are many factors that put us at risk for heart disease and heart attack.  And many of those factors are ones we can take hold of and control.  While that is good news, unfortunately, reducing those risks is be easier said than done.  The toughest part of my job as a physician assistant was discussing with patients the advice I am about to write about.  These changes take time and effort and in some cases a financial commitment; it’s hard for people to hear they need to add one more responsibility into their already busy lives and have another bill to pay.  But consider these lifestyle improvements in the long term.  For one, better health means better presence as a parent, improved job performance, and more enjoyment of life in general.  And the medical-related costs of heart attack are staggering; they can put a financial strain on even the most well-insured.  Spending the extra “insurance” now to improve lifestyle and health lowers the chance of huge hospital bills.

So how can we reduce the risks of heart disease and heart attack?

Quit smoking; or don’t even start.  Easy to say, i understand.  But you likely do not light up; fewer and fewer people do.  However, if you are a smoker, it’s important to quit and I won’t belabor why…we all know smoking is bad for the smoker and anyone who lives with her.  That said smoking is addictive, both physically and emotionally, and it takes outside help and support for many to circular-file the cigarettes.  Medication can help.  There are hotlines and counselors.   Know you may quit for only a day and fall off the wagon.  That’s normal.  The good news?  People who have quit smoking in the past are more likely to quit again and quit for good.

Know your family’s health history.  These facts you can’t change, but knowledge of your family’s health history is still important.  Your risk of heart disease and heart attack is increased if parents, siblings and/or grandparents have been diagnosed with either.  Certain ethnic groups are also more likely to have CHD or a heart attack.  African Americans are more at risk for stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure.  People of Latin descent are at higher risk of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  Know your family health history and discuss it with your doctor.

Eat a healthy diet.  Now, the idea of a healthy diet has evolved considerably.  And the diets that are fad, fiction and truly legit are difficult to sort out.  This is where a good nutritionist comes in.  The cost of a consultation will likely be on you…many insurance plans don’t cover this type of health-related visit.  But it’s one visit that can clear up the myths of healthy eating and steer you in a positive direction.  To get started, here’s some of the up-to-the-moment nutritional advice for a healthy you:

eat more vegetables (not just advice from Mom anymore)

try high-fiber whole grains (avoid the white bread)

eat like a Disney sidekick and snack on nuts and seeds

take to the sea and eat fish high in omega 3 “healthy fats,” like cooked salmon. (Though try to avoid it raw, like in sushi, at least for now.  Some wild salmon is infected with a parasite that can be passed along to you if eaten uncooked.)

and (the hardest advice for my raging sweet tooth) limit the junk food, both sweet and salty.  Make processed food, basically fast food and anything that comes in a bag or can, a once-in-a-while treat.

Consume the food labels.  Scan for hidden salt, sugar and bad-for-you fats.  Here’s a link for a nutritional label tutorial to help you decipher this information.

Exercise.  Not just for the “health nut” anymore.  In fact, exercise may prove to be a “miracle drug.”  Some early findings have shown exercise to improve health in many aspects, including vision and lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s…not just in lowering the risk of heart disease.  And we know daily movement promotes emotional well-being.  So there are many reasons to get up and get moving.  Activity doesn’t have to be extreme to improve health, either.  Simply taking a 30-minute walk each day can lower the risk of stroke (up to 20%) and the risk of heart disease (up to 30-40% in women).  Be sure, though, to consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.

Lower your blood pressure and lower your blood sugar.  Both, when abnormally high, increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.  Both can be controlled with the proper medications.  But even medications fight a losing battle when up against a sedentary lifestyle with poor dietary habits.  So it’s important to play well and eat well in order to improve both blood pressure and blood sugar.

Lower your cholesterol.  A few comments on this naturally-occurring compound.  Our bodies do need it to function properly, but our bodies also manufacture what they need.  Any additional cholesterol we consume through our diets contributes to elevated cholesterol levels.  A detailed discussion of the cholesterol (aka “lipid”) panel is beyond the scope of this post, but know the recommendation is to start getting your cholesterol checked at age 20, and every five years thereafter.

Of note:  we’ve all heard about the family of drugs called statins.  They are effective at lowering cholesterol levels but do come with their own risks, such side effects as muscle pain, liver dysfunction and even diabetes.  And it’s questionable whether taking statins actually lowers the risk of stroke, heart attack and angina in people who have not been diagnosed with those conditions.  So even though statins lower cholesterol levels in otherwise healthy individuals, these drugs may not prevent a first heart attack or stroke.  As always, it’s best to discuss using statins with your doctor, and definitely bring up the emerging concern that they may not help prevent a major heart event.

Common foods that contain cholesterol.

Lose weight.  (That is, if you are overweight.) The granddaddy of advice no one wants to hear.  And no wonder:  it’s a huge task that takes time and effort and an overhaul of long term poor dietary and sedentary habits.  It’s a lifelong commitment.  I don’t take doling out this advice lightly, because I’ve seen firsthand the struggles and the successes of the road to a healthy weight.  But losing weight is possible, with baby steps.  Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.  It’s an epidemic that needs addressed in all levels of healthcare because of the heart risks and also because of other health risks, too.

It’s been shown that losing just 5-10% of elevated body weight can make great strides in lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes.  That’s great news.  But taking the first step toward weight loss is not.  Nor is making those changes habit.  But with the right support and direction, weight loss will come.

It all comes back to diet and exercise.  But the first step is a visit to your physician for a complete health exam and a discussion about a weight loss plan that is tailored to you.  Know you may fall off the wagon.  As with smoking, keep climbing back on…the more you try to lose weight, the more success you’ll have with each try.  Garner support from your family and friends; partnerships in weight loss help with success.

And think baby steps.  You don’t have to go vegan or paleo or become an ultra-marathoner in order to lose or maintain a healthy weight or lower your risk of heart disease.  Take it slow and results will come.  You can do this.

You are worth it.

Your family is worth it.


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