Information from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
What Is Heart Disease?
Coronary heart disease—often simply called heart disease—occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to a buildup of plaque on the arteries’ inner walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque continues to build up in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced.
Heart disease can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when an artery becomes totally blocked with plaque, preventing vital oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. A heart attack can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.
Heart disease is one of several cardiovascular diseases, which are disorders of the heart and blood vessel system. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, and rheumatic heart disease.
Some people aren’t too concerned about heart disease because they think it can be “cured” with surgery. This is a myth. Heart disease is a lifelong condition: Once you get it, you’ll always have it. It’s true that procedures such as angioplasty and bypass surgery can help blood and oxygen flow more easily to the heart. But the arteries remain damaged, which means you are still more likely to have a heart attack. What’s more, the condition of your blood vessels will steadily worsen unless you make changes in your daily habits and control your risk factors. Many people die of complications from heart disease, or become permanently disabled. That’s why it is so vital to take action to prevent this disease.
Who Is at Risk?
Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight, physical inactivity, and diabetes. Recent research shows that more than 95 percent of those who die from heart disease have at least one of these major risk factors.
Certain risk factors, such as getting older, can’t be changed. After menopause, women are more likely to develop heart disease. For both women and men, middle age is a time of increasing risk because people are more likely to develop heart disease risk factors during this stage of life.
Family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can’t be changed. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease.
While certain risk factors cannot be changed, it is important to realize that you do have control over many others. Regardless of your age or family history, you can take important steps to lower your risk of heart disease.
How Risk Works
It may be tempting to believe that doing just one healthy thing will take care of your heart disease risk. For example, you may hope that if you walk or swim regularly, you can still eat a lot of fatty foods and stay fairly healthy. Not true. To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each and every risk factor you have. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important.
While each risk factor increases your risk of heart disease, having more than one risk factor is especially serious. That’s because risk factors tend to “gang up” and worsen each other’s effects. For example, if you have high blood cholesterol and you smoke, your heart disease risk increases enormously. The message is clear: You need to take heart disease risk seriously, and the best time to reduce that risk is now.
What is Your Risk?
The first step toward heart health is becoming aware of your own personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, such as smoking cigarettes or being overweight, are obvious: All of us know whether we smoke or whether we need to lose a few pounds. But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, have few visible signs or symptoms. So you’ll need to gather some information to create your own personal “heart profile.”
How To Talk With Your Doctor
The first step in finding out your risk is to make an appointment with your doctor for a thorough checkup. Your physician can be an important partner in helping you set and reach goals for heart health. But don’t wait for your doctor to mention heart disease or its risk factors. Many physicians don’t routinely bring up the topic, especially with their female patients. New research shows that women are less likely than men to receive heart healthy recommendations from their doctors.
Tell your doctor that you want to keep your heart healthy and would like help in achieving that goal. Ask questions about your chances of developing heart disease and ways to lower your risk. Also, ask for tests that will determine your personal risk factors. When your doctor asks you questions, answer them as honestly and fully as you can. While certain topics may seem quite personal, discussing them openly can help your doctor find out your chances of developing heart disease. It can also help your doctor work more effectively with you to reduce your risk.
Seven Ways to Boost Heart Health
Information from Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, www.pcrm.org
Nearly 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease daily, with an average of one death occurring every 40 seconds. An estimated 7.1 million Americans have experienced a heart attack during their lifetimes. Those who survive a heart attack often go on to have another. More than 7 percent of Americans have some type of cardiovascular disease, and one out of every six deaths in the United States is due to coronary heart disease alone. Eating habits and other lifestyle factors play a large role in determining the risk of heart disease and may prevent or even reverse this condition.
We now have the most powerful tools yet for gaining control over the health of our hearts. Here are seven ways to boost your heart health that you can take action on right away.
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- Quit Smoking
Smoking endangers more than lung health, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Smokers who had high cholesterol and blood pressure levels were at 20 times greater risk of dying from heart disease when compared to nonsmoking men with lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- Exercise Daily
Just as running increases leg strength, regular workouts can strengthen the heart. Exercise helps to delay disease progression by reducing heart disease risk factors like hyperlipidemia and hypertension.
- Load up on Fruit
Daily intake of fruit may decrease the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 percent, according to data presented in 2014 at the European Society of Cardiology Congress. Researchers followed 451,681 participants for seven years and found that in addition to reducing the risk of heart disease, daily fruit consumption reduced the risk of dying from heart disease and stroke by 27 percent and 40 percent, respectively, compared with people who ate less than a serving of fruit each day. Daily fruit intake also cut the risk of overall death by 32 percent during follow-up. This study emphasizes the effectiveness of fruit as disease treatment and prevention.
- Limit Stress
Stress takes a toll on the heart. Daily life is full of events that cause our hearts to beat a bit faster and drive up our blood pressure.
Reducing stress means keeping your challenges within a range you can manage. Getting adequate rest and learning techniques for stress reduction, meditation, or yoga can be very helpful.
- Make Fiber Your Friend!
Fiber decreases the likelihood of dying after a heart attack, according to a recently published study in British Medical Journal. A high-fiber diet was associated with a 31 percent reduction in dying and a 35 percent reduction in death from heart disease among 4,098 heart attack survivors from the Health Professionals Study and the Nurses’ Health Study.
Fiber, especially fiber from grains, decreases systemic inflammation, lowers bad cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, and enhances healthy gut flora. High-fiber foods are also high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals—all nutrients that are beneficial to health.
- Beans Are Truly Good for Your Heart
Adding just half a cup of beans a day to the diet can significantly reduce LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels, according to a meta-analysis published by the Canadian Medical Association.
Researchers analyzed data from 26 randomized control trials, which included 1,037 participants, and found that LDL cholesterol dropped an average of 5 percent after consuming half a cup of beans per day over an average of six weeks. They suggest that adding beans to the diet can be a simple way to benefit heart health.
- Fill up on Plants
A research report from the Journal of Family Practice confirms that heart disease can be dramatically improved—and even reversed—by a plant-based diet. Researchers from this study counseled 198 patients with cardiovascular disease on a diet free of fish, meat, dairy, and added oils. Of the 89 percent of participants who followed the diet, 81 percent improved their symptoms and experienced fewer complications from heart disease.
In addition, those participants lost an average of 18.7 pounds, while 22 percent saw a complete reversal of their condition. This study employed a nutritional training program that eliminated both added oils and animal products.
While exercise and smoking cessation are critical steps to decreasing your risk for chronic disease, taking control of these factors cannot undo the effects of a bad diet. The only way to a healthy heart is an all-encompassing healthy lifestyle which incorporates a varied, low-fat, vegetarian diet, daily physical activity, and stress reduction.
Sources upon request