By Timir Baman, MD OSF HealthCare, Cardiovascular Institute
Heart issues can go unnoticed until damage has been done or there is a critical heart failure, making prevention critical.
In the United States, heart disease is the number one cause of death in men and women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 630,000 Americans die from heart disease yearly—or one in four deaths.
Here Are Nine Tips to Help You Avoid Heart Issues
Avoid Tobacco and Vaping Products
It’s no secret that smoking is dangerous for your health. Not only does it increase your risk of lung cancer, but it’s also a leading cause of heart attacks. The nicotine in cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vapes causes blood vessels to restrict, which reduces blood flow. Coupling that blood-flow restriction with carbon monoxide, even from secondhand smoke, you risk damaging your heart and other organs.
If you use tobacco products, quit. The first thing is deciding, “I need to do this for my overall health. I need to do this to protect my lungs, to prevent a heart attack.” Research shows you’re more successful if you decide to stop smoking yourself as opposed to doing it at the request of a family member.
If you can’t quit by conventional means, medications are available to help combat the need for nicotine. The important thing is to keep trying until you succeed.
Limit Alcohol Consumption
There is much talk about how drinking alcohol in moderation can be good for your health, but let’s slow down for a minute. You shouldn’t start drinking for the sake of the health benefits. There are alternatives for achieving those health benefits that carry less risk for adverse side effects.
Alcohol, in general, will only raise your good cholesterol slightly, but it can also increase your stroke risk, raise your blood pressure, and even damage your liver.
Follow a Heart-Friendly Diet
A healthy diet is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease. The American Heart Association advises choosing nutrient-rich foods—which have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients but are lower in calories—over nutrient-poor foods.
Diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Also, too much table or iodized salt can raise blood pressure levels. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are the two silent killers.
Fatty foods can cause a buildup in the arteries and lead to blockage in your heart, increasing your risk of a heart attack. Choose nonfat milk or low-fat dairy products and limit fatty meats, whole-milk products, heavily processed offerings, and fried foods.
Know Your Numbers
Your blood pressure measures how much the blood moving through your arteries pushes against the vessel walls. High blood pressure is not heart disease; however, it can be a major contributing factor to heart disease.
High blood pressure has earned the distinction as one of “the silent killers” because many people show no signs that something might be wrong until they suffer a problem such as a heart attack.
I recommend getting your blood pressure checked at least every year. High blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure if left untreated.
Know Your Cholesterol Levels
High cholesterol is the other silent killer, giving little to no warning. While high cholesterol levels can be tied to genetics, it usually circles back to your diet. It’s true we are what we eat, and our food choices can make a big difference in our cholesterol numbers and, therefore, our overall health.
You need to watch three numbers: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), triglycerides, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Focus on keeping your LDL and triglyceride numbers low and your HDL number high.
Follow a diet low in saturated fat and high in soluble fiber and stick to it long term. Talk to a dietitian and find a diet that’s right for you. If you have been prescribed cholesterol medicine, take it as directed.
Watch Your Weight
Being overweight strains your body, making you susceptible to various health issues, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and sleep apnea.
To truly operate efficiently, our bodies need to reach or maintain a healthy muscle-to-fat percentage. When your body is efficient, it will naturally lower your blood pressure and maintain good cholesterol levels, improving blood flow.
There’s no way around it: Exercise is vital to heart health. You should ideally get 30 to 40 minutes of “moderate to vigorous activity” four or five times per week. A brisk walk works, or anything that elevates your heart rate somewhat.
Remember, going to a professional gym or fitness center is not necessary to get a workout.
You can do aerobic exercise just about anywhere. Resistance bands are also simple to use. And you don’t need expensive dumbbells or workout equipment. Think about using what’s handy—large soup cans, gallon jugs filled with water. These can provide the resistance you need.
Stress can be difficult to avoid, and it is on the top of my list where outside factors may be the cause. Stress can seriously impact your health, especially when a stressful situation boils over into anger. Plus, dealing with stress can also lead to alcohol abuse, smoking, and overeating.
While you can’t always control people and situations, you can learn how to handle the resulting stress and anxiety.
One great way to handle stress is to exercise and follow a healthy diet. You can also look for stress-reducing activities like meditating and hiking. If you struggle to get your stress under control, share your challenges with trusted family and friends or seek professional help.
Get Quality Sleep
Adults need at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep is essential for the way our body functions. Even brief interruptions in your sleep can cause your blood pressure to elevate.
A bad night of sleep can raise your blood pressure throughout the next day and wreak havoc on your body’s efficiency, leaving you open to several medical problems. If you have trouble sleeping or have significant snoring, get a sleep study to make sure you do not have sleep apnea, which can lead to heart issues down the road.
Connecting It All Together
If you haven’t noticed the connection, almost all of these tips play off each other. Keeping your body running efficiently lowers your cholesterol levels and blood pressure. And you improve your body’s efficiency by avoiding bad things like alcohol, vapes, and cigarettes and focusing on good things like quality sleep, exercise, and healthy foods, which improve your ability to handle stress.
If you suspect heart problems, talk to your primary care provider immediately—don’t wait. A simple physical and blood work can give you a good idea of your overall health. They can also order tests that show your coronary artery calcium score—how much plaque has built up in your arteries—and stress tests to determine how well your heart functions under exertion.
Always consult your primary care provider before starting or changing your exercise routine, diet, supplements, and medications.
From general cardiology to the most complex surgeries, we are here for you – closer to home than you might know. For more information on how to be heart healthy or to schedule an appointment, please call 309.691.4410 or visit our website at osfhealthcare.org/heart