Heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men in the United States. But, the good news is that if you begin to take some simple steps now, you have the power to protect and improve your heart health.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies have been working to advance our understanding of heart disease, so that people can live longer, healthier lives. Research has found that you can lower your risk for heart disease simply by adopting sensible health habits.
Risk factors for heart disease
To protect your heart, you should first learn your own risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors are conditions or habits that make you more likely to develop a disease. Risk factors can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse.
Some risk factors — like getting older or having a family history of heart disease — can’t be changed. But you do have control over other important risk factors, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and physical inactivity. Many people have more than one risk factor. It’s important to lower or get rid of as many as you can; together, they tend to worsen each other’s effects.
Control your risk factors by knowing your numbers
To tackle your heart disease risk factors, it helps to know your numbers. Ask your healthcare provider to measure your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Then, find out if your weight is in the healthy range.
The higher your cholesterol level, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. High cholesterol itself doesn’t cause symptoms, so you can’t know that your cholesterol is too high unless you have it tested. Routine blood tests can show your overall cholesterol level and separate levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, and triglycerides. All of these blood measurements are linked to your heart health.
High blood pressure (hypertension) is another major risk factor for heart disease and 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, one on top of the other. Any numbers above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Your weight is another important number to know. To find out if you need to lose weight, you should calculate your body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight to height). A BMI between 25 and 30 means that you’re overweight, while a BMI over 30 means that you are obese.
Next, take out a tape measure. A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men raises your 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!
Four simple tips for improving your heart health
1) A heart-healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as unprocessed meats, fish, beans and dairy products. Try to avoid the trans fat, refined sodium (salt) and added sugars that are often found in packaged foods.
2) Regular physical activity is another powerful way to reduce your risk of heart-related problems. To make physical activity a pleasure rather than a chore, choose activities that you enjoy. Take a brisk walk, play ball, lift weights with friends, dance or work in the garden. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator can make a difference! Start small and slowly increase the amount of activity you do. Many researchers say you should do 30 minutes of physical activity, at least 5 days a week.
3) If you have diabetes, it’s important to keep your blood glucose under control. About two-thirds of people with diabetes die of heart or blood vessel disease. If you’re at risk for diabetes, small changes in diet and exercise can often prevent or delay its development.
4) If you smoke, 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 non-smokers. The risk of heart attack increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day. The good news is that quitting smoking will begin to reduce your risk right away. And, just one year after you stop smoking, your risk will have dropped by more than one half!
When to call your doctor
Beyond controlling your risk factors, you should be alert to certain symptoms and get checked by a doctor. Common signals that something‘s wrong with your heart include angina — pain in the chest, shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back. Angina will often get worse when you are physically active (like when climbing stairs), and get better with rest. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, feeling that your heart is racing, and fatigue.
Be aware that the symptoms of a heart attack can be different for everyone. If you’ve already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same the second time.
Take care of yourself — do it for the people who love you!
Finally, don’t forget that you can influence your loved ones’ heart health by setting a good example. Do you have children, grandchildren or other young people who look up to you? If you follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, it’s more likely that they will, too. Because heart disease can begin in childhood, one of the best things you can do for those you love is to help children build strong bodies and healthy habits.
It’s never too late to take steps to protect your heart. It’s also never too early. Start today to keep your heart strong. Talk to your doctor about your risk and create an action plan that will keep you healthy for years to come!