We hear a lot of advice about our health: lose weight! Exercise! Watch your cholesterol!
While most of us have good intentions about those things, it can be easy to forget why they are so important in the first place: it’s all about our hearts. February is American Heart Month, a good time to take a look at how lifestyles affect heart health and why a few changes can improve the heart’s health and possibly even extend our lives.
Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, for both men and women and for African Americans, Hispanics and Anglos. More than one in four deaths each year is attributable to cardiovascular disease.
Heart disease is also the leading cause of disability in the United States, dramatically reducing the quality of life for millions each year. And it’s expensive: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates the total tab for heart disease in the United States is $200 billion annually. This includes the cost of health services and medications, as well as lost productivity.
While some heart disease is caused by genetic factors, much of its incidence can be prevented – or at least delayed until later in life – with preventative measures and sound lifestyle choices.
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most prevalent type of heart disease in the United States. CAD occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, causing them to narrow and blood flow to be restricted. CAD can cause one or more of the following:
Heart Attack: A heart attack occurs when the heart muscle does not receive enough blood. The CDC identifies five major symptoms a person experiencing a heart attack may have:
“Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.
Chest pain or discomfort.
Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.
Shortness of breath.”
“If you or someone else begins experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately,” warns Dr. Sam Nassar, a Fort Worth cardiologist. “Time is of the essence during a heart attack; the sooner you can get medical attention, the greater chance for recovery and minimizing damage to the heart.”
Angina: The most common CAD symptom, angina is chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
Arrhythmia: Arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats irregularly.
Heart failure: Heart failure can result from the gradual weakening of the heart muscle and means the heart can no longer pump blood correctly.
Reduce Your Risk
There are several factors that impact our risk of developing heart disease. Some of the most important include blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, diet, exercise, stress and whether or not we smoke.
That may sound like an overwhelming list of things to worry about, but it’s really not, according to Dr. Scott Ewing, a cardiologist in Fort Worth. “All of these factors are interrelated. For example, exercise is important for heart health in and of itself – but it also helps to control weight and blood pressure, while relieving stress. A balanced diet that includes moderate to low amounts of high-cholesterol foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar and salt will help control cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. And of course, a good diet also helps maintain a healthy weight.”
Here’s a look at some major factors that impact heart health:
Keep blood sugar in check
Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease and a cause of other serious health problems. Diabetes is a disorder of the metabolism, meaning the body is not properly using the food it is consuming. Under normal circumstances, our liver breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, also known as blood sugar. The liver releases the glucose into the blood stream. Meanwhile, the pancreas, a gland located near the stomach, produces insulin, which is a hormone that helps the body’s cells absorb the sugar in the blood. Our cells then use the glucose for energy. If a person’s cells are unable to absorb enough glucose, blood sugar levels rise. This can lead to diabetes.
Your doctor can check your blood sugar level with a simple blood test, and there are several things that can be done to lower it if it’s too high. Some foods should be avoided or eaten only in moderation. This includes certain carbohydrates, such as white flour products like bread and pasta, as well as white rice. Sugary drinks, including soda and fruit drinks, can also cause blood sugar levels to spike. Getting regular exercise and remaining hydrated are important keys to keeping blood sugar levels in check.
Cholesterol is a waxy, naturally-occurring substance in our bodies. Its purpose is to create hormones and substances that aid the digestive process. While the human body naturally produces all the cholesterol it needs, we consume additional cholesterol through food, such as meat, dairy, eggs and trans-fat.
Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream by lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins, low-density (LDL) and high-density (HDL). These are often short-handed when people say “bad cholesterol” and “good cholesterol” – LDL levels that are too high can be unhealthy, while low HDL levels are also unhealthy.
The higher a person’s LDL cholesterol, the greater the risk of developing heart disease. That’s because LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries and can lead to CAD.
Conversely, HDL is considered “good cholesterol” – the higher it is, the better. HDL cholesterol transports cholesterol and fat through the blood and to the liver so they can be eliminated from the body.
It’s important to get a lipid screening every five years – or more frequently, if your physician recommends it – to check your cholesterol levels. This simple blood test will measure cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. Triglycerides can also be harmful to cardiovascular health if they are too high.
“If your LDL levels are elevated, you can often bring them down by changing what you eat,” explains Dr. Mohanakrishnan Sathyamoorthy (“Dr. Mo”), a cardiologist with practices in Fort Worth and Weatherford. “Eating less saturated fat, the fat found in meat and dairy, can help improve cholesterol levels. Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, are found in many processed baked goods, such as cookies and doughnuts, as well as some fried foods. Trans fats are the worst type of fat, as they raise LDL cholesterol while reducing HDL levels. You should avoid trans fats altogether.”
In addition to dietary adjustments, HDL levels can be elevated through regular exercise, which has numerous heart health benefits. If diet and exercise alone are not sufficient to bring cholesterol levels into a healthy range, your physician may prescribe a medication to improve your cholesterol levels.
Healthy blood pressure
Blood pressure is the measurement of the force of blood against the arteries. A blood pressure reading always includes two numbers:
Systolic (upper number): when the heart beats
Diastolic (lower number): when the heart is resting, in between beats
You may have heard something about new blood pressure guidelines recently. If so, that’s probably because the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association late last year announced new guidelines intended to detect, manage and prevent elevated blood pressure levels at younger ages.
The ACC’s new blood pressure ranges are:
“Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg;
Elevated: Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80;
Stage 1: Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89;
Stage 2: Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg;
Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120, with patients needing prompt changes in medication if there are no other indications of problems, or immediate hospitalization if there are signs of organ damage.”
Elevated blood pressure can damage the arteries over time. It also causes the heart to work harder to pump blood, causing extra strain and possible damage to the heart. The root cause of high blood pressure is usually unknown, as it is often a condition that develops gradually as people age. However, there are known risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure, including too much salt and too little potassium in a diet, as well as excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use. As with cholesterol, if diet and exercise are insufficient to bring blood pressure into a normal range, your physician may prescribe medication.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things we can do for heart health and our overall well-being. People who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for heart disease and a host of related problems, including diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. Carrying around excess weight also makes the heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body and causes strain on the joints, which in turn can make it more difficult to get exercise.
“Losing weight can seem challenging, but it’s really a matter of simple math – we need to shed more calories than we consume,” explains Dr. Naresh Patel, a Fort Worth cardiologist. “By watching how much and what we eat and burning more calories, you’ll begin to see the pounds come off.”
“The first half of the weight equation centers around what – and how much – we eat,” says Dr. Ewing. “Our diets also affect our cholesterol levels, blood sugar and blood pressure – in other words, it impacts pretty much every main element of heart health.”
In general, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsalted nuts, lean meat and fish are heart-friendly foods that promote a healthy body weight and good overall health.
Foods that should be avoided or eaten only in moderation include fatty meats, processed meats (such as hot dogs), fried foods and food with high amounts of salt or sugar.
What we drink also impacts our weight and other aspects of our health. Alcohol should be consumed only in moderation; up to one drink per day for women and two for men. “Drinking alcohol only in moderation, if at all, helps to reduce risk of heart disease and cancer,” says Dr. Ewing. “It also helps our weight – alcoholic drinks are loaded with calories and contribute to weight gain.”
Sugary drinks, such as soft drinks and energy drinks, also up your calorie intake while providing little or no nutrition. And while fruit is good for you, fruit juices are high in sugar and calories and provide none of the healthy fiber that fruit does.
It’s important to also understand how much to eat. For example, grilled salmon is a healthy food – it provides omega 3 fats that help to manage cholesterol and triglycerides and is a good source of protein. That said, a 16-ounce piece of salmon is not good for you, at least not in one meal. Meat and fish portions should be around 4 ounces per serving. Pasta – the whole grain variety – should be limited to 1 cup, dry.
“Most of us already have a measuring cup or two in our kitchens and if you don’t have a kitchen scale, you can find one for $20 or so,” suggests Dr. Sathyamoorthy. “Make use of these tools to weigh and measure your food, at least until you are adept at eyeballing how much a cup of cereal is or how much a chicken breast weighs. If you do this, chances are you will be surprised at two things: one, how much you’ve been exceeding the recommended serving size without realizing it and two, how filling the appropriate serving size can be. Do that for a few weeks, and you’ll start to see some weight loss.”
Exercise helps the heart in two really important ways. Walking, bicycling, running and swimming cause the heart rate to rise. As the heart beats faster to pump blood, the heart muscle is strengthened. When you hear someone talk about doing “cardio” exercise, that’s why: the heart is getting a workout.
Exercise, of course, is also the second half of the weight equation. We have to get moving to burn more calories than we consume.
“Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise, five or more days a week, is one of the most important things you can do for your heart,” says Dr. Patel. “You’ll reap health benefits from exercise as simple as going for a brisk walk around your neighborhood.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before beginning any exercise routine, visit with your physician first to ensure that exercise is safe for you. Exercising with an undetected, underlying health condition can result in serious injury, illness or death.
One of the heart health variables that we probably don’t pay enough attention to is stress. Stress wears us down mentally and physically and can put undue strain on the heart over time. “We all experience stress in our lives,” says Dr. Nassar. “It’s important to know how to manage stress and not let it adversely affect our health. Too much stress can cause blood pressure to rise and may also lead to unhealthy habits in an effort to ‘cope,’ such as drinking, smoking or eating unhealthy food.”
Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night will help manage stress. Regular exercise is an effective way to mitigate stress and clear the mind. It’s also important to make time for yourself doing what you enjoy – reading, working in the garden, playing golf or some other activity.
Smoking is one of the very worst things you can do to your heart. Smoking causes arteries to narrow and elevates blood pressure. It contributes to unhealthy cholesterol levels and can lead to diabetes, not to mention it causes cancer and lot of other serious illnesses.
If you smoke, make an appointment to see your doctor and develop a plan to quit.
A Healthy Lifestyle Makes for a Healthier Heart
This February, take some time to consider what more you can do to take care of your heart. “If it’s been a while since you’ve been in to see your health care provider, you should make an appointment to have a checkup and get your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar checked,” says Dr. Patel.
“Your physician can work with you to suggest any lifestyle adjustments that can help your heart and keep it beating stronger and longer,” says Dr. Nassar. “After all, we only have one heart – take good care of it and it will take care of you!”
This article contains information sourced from: