Ward Off Heart Disease … Before it Strikes
Heart disease kills.
Cardiovascular disease kills more men and more women each year than any other cause of death. Numbers of heart attacks and strokes, as well as episodes of congestive heart failure, are escalating to epidemic proportions. Prevention is the key to saving lives.
Cardiovascular disease prevention focuses on risk factors. Risk factors are divided into two categories:
Modifiable and Unmodifiable.
Unmodifiable risk factors can’t be changed. These include:
Age. Men 45 and older and women 55 and older are at increased risk for developing heart disease. As we age, our risk of developing significant heart disease goes up.
Gender. Men develop heart disease earlier than women. It is commonly thought that women lag behind in the development of heart disease by about ten years. However, more women are developing heart disease at an earlier age that ever before and often have more severe disease and symptoms that are very atypical.
Family history of heart disease is a key predictor. This includes a close (parents or siblings) male relative having heart disease or a heart attack before the age of 55, and/or a female relative before the age of 65.
Modifiable risk factors depend on you. These are things that you can change. If you have unmodifiable risk factors, it is very important that you minimize your risk of cardiovascular disease by modifying the factors listed below.
- Smoking- both direct and secondhand
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Smoking damages the lining of the artery walls. Arteries carry blood from the heart to body tissues. The damage caused by smoking allows plaques to build up in the arteries. These blockages reduce the amount of blood flow that “nourishes” the heart. Smoking also decreases the amount of “good” (HDL) cholesterol and increases the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol circulating in the body. Also, nicotine is a stimulant — it increases blood pressure and heart rate. In the past, it was felt that only direct smoke played a role in heart disease, but newer studies confirm that secondhand smoke is just as deadly.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, causes the heart to work harder. Like any pump- the heart has to overcome the pressure against it. Because of this, the heart muscle can enlarge. High blood pressure can also damage the lining of the artery walls, which encourages plaque build-up. High blood pressure is defined by a blood pressure reading of 130/80 or greater. A healthy blood pressure is 120/80 or less. If you have other risk factors, even a blood pressure of 130/80 may be too high.
High cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol in the body: LDL and HDL. LDL — or “bad” — cholesterol sticks to the inside of an artery’s walls, causing plaque to build up. HDL — or “good” — cholesterol circulates through the arteries and decreases the risk of plaque build-up. Cholesterol is found only in foods derived from animals, such as milk, cheese and meat.
If you have an HDL cholesterol level of 60 or higher, your risk of heart disease does not increase, and may even be below average. This is true even if your total cholesterol levels are also high (greater than 200.) It’s important to have both your total cholesterol and your cholesterol profile checked and evaluated in terms of your personal cardiovascular risk.
The general goals for cholesterol levels are as follows:
Diabetes: Diabetes increases the rate at which heart disease develops and progresses. It is very important to get screened for diabetes. If you have diabetes, it is important to control your blood sugars well, exercise, and avoid any other risk factors. People with diabetes are at very high risk for cardiovascular disease and are often treated as if they have cardiovascular disease. If you have diabetes, it is imperative that you follow regularly with your doctor and report any symptoms that you may be having, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.
Stress puts excess demand on the heart muscle. During stressful situations, the body releases adrenaline, a hormone that increases heart rate and narrows blood vessels. This in turn increases blood pressure, and the heart works even harder. Stress does not need to be eliminated from life, but it can be reduced and controlled through stress management techniques and exercise.
Obesity is one of the fastest growing health problems in the United States — for children and for adults. Regular physical activity and following a heart-healthy diet are a key prescription in the prevention and treatment of obesity and heart disease.Warding off heart disease on your own.Keeping your blood sugar levels under control, increasing your level of “good” cholesterol with regular exercise, maintaining a normal weight and, if you have it, controlling your high blood pressure are all good ways to help prevent heart disease.Also, aerobic exercise most if not all days of the week can help you to control the modifiable risk factors for heart disease. Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your physician and get screened for any risk factors for heart disease. By being aware of any risk factors, you and your physician can be proactive in your health care and reduce risks for heart disease.
Be aware — it’s your heart!
Take the American Heart Association’s quiz to see if you are at risk for a heart attack.
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