February is American Heart Month
February is American Heart Month. Despite advances in medicine, heart disease – also called coronary heart disease (CHD) – remains the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States.
While there are risk factors for heart disease that we can’t change, such as our family’s health history, there are several things we can do to be an effective advocate for our heart health, and our wellness in general. Many of the known risk factors for heart disease are ones that we can impact by healthy lifestyle choices.
Smoking is the most important modifiable risk factor for heart disease (and for many other diseases as well). Smoking can elevate blood pressure, increase the tendency for the blood to develop clots, and cause plaque buildup in arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Exercising regularly is vital for a stronger heart and for overall health. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (for example, a brisk walk for 30-60 minutes on most days of the week). Multiple shorter sessions (at least 10 minutes each) are also acceptable to accumulate the recommended amount of daily exercise.
Eating a healthy diet
While the exact composition of the optimal diet is not known, and likely varies to a degree between different individuals, the general consensus recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) is to eat foods low in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and limit trans fats and foods with added sugars.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Obesity, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and above, has been identified as an independent risk factor for CHD. While BMI, which is a mathematical equation that incorporates a person’s weight relative to height, only provides an estimate of body fat, it is easy to perform and is useful as a screening tool. New guidelines released in November 2013 by the AHA, along with the American College of Cardiology and The Obesity Society, recommend that physicians should approach obesity as a disease and treat it more actively. These guidelines advise physicians to calculate patients’ BMIs at least once a year. Patients for whom weight loss is recommended should be offered or referred for comprehensive lifestyle intervention. Sustained loss of as little as 5% of body weight has been shown to result in significant reduction of some cardiovascular risk factors. There are several online BMI calculators that can give an estimate of your BMI. This is a useful number for us to know, along with knowing our other important numbers, such as blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Remember to also take prescription medications as instructed by your physician, and be an active participant in managing any other risk factors you may have, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.