February is heart-health month, and I greatly appreciate the media and communities sharing important information about heart health. The aim is to bring the message home — to understand the why’s and what you can and must do to help manage your heart health.
Yes, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in our nation. Still, in the past 50 years, we’ve seen amazing, dramatic successes in treating heart disease — and the lion’s share of power is in lifestyle choices.
My goal is to provide key information about what you can and cannot do to protect your heart, and why heart disease prevention and care should be at the forefront of your health goals. Today and every day, you can take steps to significantly lower your risk of heart disease and improve your heart’s health.
Dr. Nina’s what you need to know: About your heart health
Understanding the need to care: Your body is amazing and intricate with a vast number of organs that all work together. Every organ has its own unique responsibility. Your heart’s job is to pump life-sustaining necessities to the 3 trillion cells in your body.
Without the workings of your heart, multiple other organs would fail. For example, the brain is in constant need of a supply of oxygen from blood. Your muscles need oxygen, glucose and amino acids, as well as the proper ratio of sodium, calcium and potassium salts in order to contract normally — and so without the heart, these functions would fail. Through a remarkable journey, your heart rids the blood of waste in your body. And when the heart fails, the entire body shuts down in a matter of minutes.
Bottom line, when your heart is not working properly, just about everything in your body is affected.
Heart disease: It is an umbrella term for diseases that affect the heart’s structure, circulation or electrical rhythm.
• Structural defects include problems with the heart’s muscle or valves, and congenital (birth) defects.
• Circulatory diseases refer to problems with blood vessels — including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the narrowing and blockage of the heart’s blood vessels.
• Abnormal heart rhythms result when something goes awry with the heart’s electrical system, which serves as a switchboard for a steady, regular heartbeat — causing hearts to beat too fast, too slow or in a chaotic manner that is unable to support sufficient or efficient pumping of blood.
Primary culprit — atherosclerosis: This is a condition that develops when plaque builds up inside the arteries of the heart — blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood. It can result in inadequate delivery of oxygen, that can lead to angina (chest pain), arrhythmias (abnormal beating of the heart) or a heart attack (death of heart muscle) if there’s complete blockage.
Plaque is comprised of lumps and clumps of cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances. Chronically elevated blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and elevated low-density lipid (LDL) cholesterol levels can lead to atherosclerosis, causing damage to the inner lining of our arteries.
It is important to highlight that although atherosclerosis symptoms typically present in middle and late adulthood, the development of plaques often begins during childhood and teens.
Risk factors associated with the development of heart disease:
• High cholesterol levels
• High blood pressure
• Sedentary lifestyle
• “Type A” personality
• Unhealthy eating patterns
• Not managing stress
• Family history of heart disease
Heart disease risk can be genetic — meaning you are born with specific genes that you can’t control. This part of your risk can be managed with the assistance of your physician. Or it can be modifiable, which means you can manage or even eliminate the risk factors.
Steps to help protect yourself against cardiovascular heart disease: Eating and drinking right, exercising, avoiding smoking, managing your weight, blood pressure and stress can help prevent and possibly reverse the ravages of heart disease. They are cornerstones of heart disease treatment.
• Work with your doctor. Get a check-up, along with any screenings or blood work to “know your numbers” and understand your specific needs. Just because you “feel alright” or your body weight, exercise habits and diet are healthy, don’t think that your blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels are too. Your genes may predispose you to cardiovascular disease. Talk with your health provider about heart-related screenings that might be important for you.
• Be active. Regular physical activity and exercise can put a dent in and even reverse a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes or chronic stress.
If you are diagnosed with heart disease, talk to your physician so you can learn to monitor activity properly before starting any exercise program.
• Healthy diet. Consuming the right foods and drinks can help you control your weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. Follow a dietary pattern that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy choices.
• Control cholesterol. There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it helps remove the LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol from the arteries.
Elevated levels of bad cholesterol can clog your arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. Conversely elevated levels of good cholesterol may be protective against heart disease, stroke and kidney injury due to atherosclerosis.
• Know your cholesterol levels. If you don’t know them, talk to your doctor about scheduling a cholesterol screening.
• Know your fats. Knowing which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is a key step to lowering your risk of heart disease.
• Decrease “bad” cholesterol levels. Certain foods can be a “medicine” to help lower LDL levels. Some delectable delights include oatmeal, nuts, beans and legumes, olive oil and omega-3 fats in fish.
• In some cases, diet and lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough. Your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medication to keep your cholesterol levels in check.
• Manage blood pressure. When elevated, it causes our heart to work harder and damages our blood vessels.
• A diet low in sodium and rich in foods containing potassium, calcium and magnesium — referred to as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet — may help prevent or normalize high blood pressure.
• And if diagnosed with hypertension, there are a number of medications that can help manage it. These prescriptions have maximal impact when lifestyle changes are also implemented.
• A commonly held myth is that you can tell when your blood pressure is high — that’s simply untrue. Many people live with high blood pressure and are unaware of it. It’s the same with cholesterol — you can’t tell when your cholesterol is elevated.
• Lose extra pounds and watch your waistline. Weight loss can decrease or even normalize elevated blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugars. It is critical to achieving your best health.
• Control your blood sugar levels and diabetes. Chronically elevated blood glucose levels are damaging to blood vessels. Thus, if you have diabetes, it is imperative to keep your blood sugars under proper control. Doing so can minimize the impact of diabetes on your body — and even prevent or delay its onset. This involves eating right, controlling your weight, exercising and taking medication prescribed by your doctor. Lifestyle changes can result in a decreased need for medication, and in some cases, eliminate them.
• Stop smoking. Going smoke-free can help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as cancer and chronic lung disease. Experts state it is never too late to quit smoking, and your body begins to heal as soon as you smoke your last cigarette.
• Manage chronic stress. More research is needed to determine how stress contributes to heart disease, but stress studies link behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk: High blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, consuming alcohol, physical inactivity and overeating. These habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.
Regardless of age, there are things you can do to prevent, slow down or reverse heart disease. Research shows even small changes to your habits can have a surprising effect on your heart health. In fact, studies estimate 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented by lifestyle changes.
You hold great power with your choices.
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.