February is American Heart Month. Since cardiovascular disease is one of the leading cause of deaths in Americans, the entire month is dedicated to raising awareness of heart health.
Cardiovascular diseases are typically the result of atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. This buildup develops gradually over time, as soft fatty streaks form along the inner walls of arteries. As the buildup continues, these streaks begin to harden into plaque, which constricts the blood flow through the arteries. This can lead to a heart attack, the formation of blood clots, or stroke.
There are several risk factors that may contribute to whether or not you will develop some form of cardiovascular disease during your lifetime. Some of these risk factors are beyond your control, such as your gender and your genes, for instance. Men typically run a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease than women, as do people who have other family members who have the disease. There are other risk factors, however, that can be controlled or eliminated by following a healthy lifestyle.
Here are eight steps that you can take to have a healthy heart and lower your chances of developing cardiovascular disease:
1. Know your risk factors. It is important to be aware of any risk factors that you may possess. For example, if you have a parent or other close family member with cardiovascular disease, you are at a higher risk. The odds of developing cardiovascular disease also tend to increase as we age. People who are diabetic have an elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease because chronic high blood sugar is associated with the narrowing of the arteries. People with diabetes also tend to have lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and increased levels of triglycerides (blood fats).
2. Make healthy food choices. Your diet can have a major impact on your chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Limit your intake of greasy or fried foods, and fatty red meats. Fill your diet instead with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats such as poultry and seafood, and fiber-rich foods such as whole-grain oatmeal and whole-grain breads.
3. If you’re overweight, get to a healthy weight and maintain it. If you are currently overweight, your odds of developing cardiovascular disease are higher. A loss of just 10 to 20 pounds can help lower your likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. Work with your physician or dietitian to find a healthy eating plan that will work for you.
4. Establish and follow a regular exercise program. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, it is recommended to reduce the risk of chronic disease to engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity most days of the week. Consult with your family physician to see what forms of activity are appropriate for your age and current physical condition.
5. Have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly. Have your family physician check your cholesterol and blood pressure at least once a year. If either of these sets of numbers is high, your chances of developing cardiovascular disease greatly increase. Your physician can help you modify your lifestyle by improving your diet and adding exercise in order to bring your numbers under control. In some cases, your physician may also prescribe medication to help return your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers to normal levels.
6. If you smoke, you should quit. Smoking is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular diseases. According to the American Medical Association, people can cut their risk of developing cardiovascular disease in half within one year of quitting smoking.
7. Get a handle on your stress. Stress may help contribute to heart disease. Stress can also cause your blood pressure to rise and may lead to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or binging on unhealthy foods. Try practicing meditation or yoga as a way to combat stress. Take a few minutes out of each day and do something you enjoy, such as listening to music or reading, for example.
8. Don’t ignore possible warning signs. That burning sensation in your chest may simply be the result of heartburn, but it could also be a warning sign of the presence of cardiovascular disease. Other symptoms may include a sense of tightness emanating from the breastbone and into the neck, jaw and arm or a shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t casually dismiss them. Let your physician determine what is causing them and follow his advice. Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. While some of the causes are beyond your control, many of them are not. If you follow a healthy diet and lead an active lifestyle, you may be able to reduce your risk of heart disease. Work with your family physician to develop a lifestyle plan that is right for you.
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