These easy steps can decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke
With nearly 40 percent of cardiovascular disease deaths due to either stroke or heart disease in the United States, the American Heart and Stroke Foundation calls it the number one killer in America.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death of Louisiana, accounting for approximately 27 percent of the state’s deaths in 2002, with stroke as the third leading cause, accounting for approximately 6 percent of the state’s deaths in 2002.
In this feature, New Orleans Living offers some insight from the city’s top cardiologists on how to reduce these deadly statistics.
“It’s best to address your vulnerability to heart disease as early as possible, especially if you have a family history of early heart disease,” says Dr. John P. Reilly, associate director of the Cardiac Cath Lab at Ochsner Medical Center.
“If a first-degree male relative [father or brother] has a history of heart attack, bypass surgery or a coronary stent before they turned 55, you are at a higher risk for having heart disease at a younger age.”
But, Reilly says, the risk is just as great for women, and they should make note of their family history as well.
“If your mother or sister had one of these cardiac events before she turned 65, you are also at higher risk,” says Reilly. “Since we cannot change our families, or the genes they gave us, people with a family history of premature atherosclerosis should be especially attentive to reducing their risk factors that can be changed.”
Warning signs of a heart attack
“The typical description of a heart attack is a crushing, or pressure-like chest discomfort that lasts for more than 30 minutes,” Reilly says. “It [is] like someone sitting on your chest.”
Reilly also says that a person experiencing a heart attack may become sweaty or short of breath. In addition to chest discomfort, he says, pain sometimes occurs in the upper arms or jaw or both.
“Many patients with heart attacks fail to recognize that they are having a heart attack,” he says. “They often report that they thought a heart attack would be more painful, and only rate what they experienced [as] a dull ache or discomfort.” But remember that not everyone having a heart attack presents the “typical” symptoms. Many believe they are suffering from indigestion or heartburn, discomfort of the upper abdomen or even nausea. These are all common complaints for certain heart attack victims. Shortness of breath may be the only symptom recognized by some. In others, prolonged palpitations in the chest may be a sign of a heart attack.
Lifestyle choices and healthy tips to help prevent heart disease
“Quitting smoking may be one of the most important lifestyle changes that we can make to improve our health,” explains Reilly. “Smoking alone, without any other risk factors for heart disease, is enough to cause someone to have a heart attack. Do not think that it is too late to quit smoking because the health benefits of quitting begin almost immediately after putting down the last cigarette.”
Did you know that a woman who smokes is two to three times more likely to develop heart disease than a nonsmoker? That’s because tobacco smoke cuts off oxygen from the heart, promoting inflammation and fatty deposits in the arteries and making the blood more apt to clot.
“But stopping smoking starts to have a positive impact on the blood vessels within days, and after two or three years, an ex-smoker’s risk of heart disease is similar to a nonsmoker’s,” adds Reilly. Be sure to avoid secondhand smoke as well because an idling cigarette delivers even more toxic chemicals to a bystander than to the smoker who inhales it.
Exercise offers many benefits: It strengthens the heart muscle and makes it a more efficient pump, keeps weight in check, controls blood pressure and blood fat levels and helps to reduce stress—all cardiac risk factors. It also raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol, which whisks fat away from arterial walls.
“To keep your heart healthy, you should perform 30 minutes of aerobic activity regularly three times a week,” recommends Reilly. “Many of us have busy days and feel tired at the end of it, but it is rare that in the course of the day at work or running errands we perform activity that keeps our heart rate up for 30 minutes. This is why it is important to commit ourselves to regular exercise and not rely on the activity of our day.”
Eat a heart-healthy diet
The best recipe for heart health is a varied regimen rich in fiber and low in saturated fats.
“Heart-healthy eating can help maintain a healthy weight, which in turn reduces the risk of high levels of blood fats—cholesterol and triglycerides—blood pressure and blood sugar,” says Molly Kimball, a clinical dietitian at Elmwood Fitness Center.
Select wholesome and unprocessed foods that are low in refined starch and sugar, saturated fats and sodium. Get plenty of fiber from whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits and choose lower-fat dairy products and leaner meats. Pass on fatty meats, deep-fried foods as well as excess cheese, butter and cream.
Twice a week, aim to eat deep-colored fish such as salmon, tuna or sardines, which are rich in hearthealthy omega-3 fatty acids. Also steer clear of plaque-promoting trans fats found in commercially baked goods, potato chips and french fries.
“But don’t forget the heart-friendly fats in walnuts and flaxseeds, and in soy, canola and olive oils,” adds Kimball.
Maintain a normal blood pressure
High blood pressure forces the cardiac muscle to work harder and become thicker, stiffer and less efficient at pumping. Blood pressure should be kept below 140/90—even lower if you have other cardiac risk factors. A healthy weight, regular exercise and limiting your alcohol intake can help maintain a normal blood pressure.
“Have your pressure checked at least once a year by your physician, more often if you have risk factors for hypertension or heart disease,” says Dr. Louis Glade, a cardiologist at West Jefferson Medical Center.
Keep blood fats in check
High blood levels of cholesterol, which is a fatlike substance, and other blood fats help form artery-clogging plaque. An especially dangerous combination is a high level of the “bad” lowdensity lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol that carries fat to arterial walls and a low level of the “good” HDL cholesterol that whisks fat away to the liver for elimination.
High cholesterol is considered 240 mg/dL and above. Less than 200 mg/dL is desirable. For LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, we accept up to 160mg/dL for people with zero or one risk factor, while those with more than one risk factor should be less than 130. People with heart disease, other vascular disease or diabetes should have an LDL less than 100.
“A healthy weight, heart-friendly diet and plenty of exercise tame blood fat levels,” says Reilly.
Watch your weight
Excess body fat— especially in the waist area—increases the heart’s workload and can elevate blood pressure and cholesterol. It also decreases the body’s response to insulin in a condition called insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease.
Keep diabetes at bay
Diabetes can quadruple your risk of cardiovascular disease because it usually involves abnormal levels of blood fats that can promote plaque formation. A healthy weight (with a particular focus on reducing abdominal fat), low-fat, high-fiber diet and exercise are your allies.
Your doctor will tell you if you need early blood sugar testing based on your diabetes risk factors. Current guidelines recommend testing at age 40 and then every three years.
Curb your alcohol intake
Too much alcohol can increase weight, blood pressure and blood fat levels. “Women should consume no more than one unit per day, which is 1.5 ounces of spirits, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer,” says Kimball.
Manage your mental health
For most people, the important thing is how they react to the stressors of everyday life. If your response is to smoke more, drink more and overeat instead of, say, going for a brisk walk, your heart disease risk will go up.
And if you suffer from chronic depression and anxiety and are prone to anger, get help because researchers report links between heart disease and these conditions.
Young or old, adopting a heart-smart lifestyle now makes sense.
It’s never too early to start taking good care of your heart. And, it’s never too late.
Making changes to your lifestyle may be tough in the beginning, but there are many rewards. You’ll feel better, have more energy and lower your risk of stroke, cancer, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. Your new healthier diet and lifestyle can improve the well-being of your entire family.