Take Care of Your Heart: 4 Keys to Preventing Heart Disease

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(Photo: iStock)

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death of adults in the United States. The Mayo Clinic defines the umbrella term as conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain or stroke. High blood pressure can lead to these conditions without symptoms, which is how it earned its reputation as a “silent killer.”

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease kills one in three women. While genetics play a part, 80% of these deaths are preventable.

Know Your Numbers

Start with blood pressure checks. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects one out of three American adults every year.  According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with high blood pressure are four times more likely to die from a stroke and three times more likely to die from heart disease compared to those with normal blood pressure.   

This American Heart Month, the CDC is partnering with Million Hearts, a national effort to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes in the United States by 2017. They are encouraging Americans to know their blood pressure. Your annual gynecological check-up should include a blood pressure screening, and you can also take advantage of screenings at your local drugstore or consider investing in a blood pressure monitor to keep at home.   

Also make sure to prioritize talking to your physician about having your cholesterol levels checked. High cholesterol can lead to clogged arteries and an eventual heart attack, so it’s important to be aware of the level in your blood. A simple blood test can provide you with your total cholesterol number as well as how much of that is low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL or "good" cholesterol).

Make Control your Goal

In addition to knowing your numbers, the CDC and Million Hearts® urge you to "make control your goal." A normal, healthy blood pressure should read 120 over 80 or lower. Additionally, your total cholesterol number should be 200 or lower with less than half being LDL, and HDL making up the rest. If your numbers are higher, talk to your doctor about management and treatment options. There are medications you can take, but you can also lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels with lifestyle changes. 

Try the DASH Diet

Voted best diet for the sixth year in a row by US News & World Report, DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The diet was originally created to help lower blood pressure but it is also very effective for weight loss and lowering cholesterol. DASH focuses on limiting daily sodium intake and keeping fat consumption in check while consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy. Specific recommendations include consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. If you try this popular diet, you'll also need to make sure fat only comprises 27% or less of daily caloric intake with the majority coming from monounsaturated sources such as olive oil, avocado and nuts.  

Move More

According to the American Heart Association, exercising just 30 minutes a day, five days a week can significantly improve your heart health and reduce your risk for heart disease. Make sure these are cardio-based workouts like walking, jogging, spinning or Zumba classes. Weight lifting is great for building lean muscle mass, but aerobic exercises improve your heart rate, decrease your blood pressure and help you maintain a healthy weight.

Stop Smoking

As if you needed another reason to ditch the nasty habit, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, any amount of smoking, even light smoking or occasional smoking, damages the heart and blood vessels. If you are taking oral contraception, this probability of damage is even higher.

Smoking increases your risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque building up in the arteries, and if plaque builds up in your coronary arteries this can lead to heart attacks and eventually heart failure. Making small changes and working to address bad habits like smoking are key steps in our fight against fighting preventable heart disease.