Heart and blood vessel diseases or cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in our country, approximately 2600 Americans die each day from cardiovascular disease.
One of the most disturbing aspects of heart disease is that many of the risk factors for it are modifiable- things we can control- but we make unhealthy choices. Unfortunately many people do not know or realize how their lifestyles and habits affect their health. Although heredity may play a part in heart disease, controlling your risk factors may actually offset some of the hereditary factors.
In order to understand how to prevent heart disease, you need to understand the term “heart disease.” This usually refers to disease of the blood vessels of the heart that can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when an artery becomes blocked and prevents oxygen and nutrients in the blood from getting to the heart, which is made of muscle. The most common type of blockage is caused by plaque building up, causing narrowing of the blood vessels or breaking off and blocking a blood vessel. Plaque is formed by cholesterol deposits.
Everyone should know the warning signs of a heart attack. These include unusual chest, stomach or abdominal pain; nausea, dizziness or difficulty breathing without chest pain; unexplained weakness, anxiety or fatigue; and heart palpitations, cold sweat or paleness. Not all of these signs occur in every attack.
Heart disease is a lifelong condition, if you have heart disease, the condition of your blood vessels will steadily continue to worsen unless you make changes in your lifestyle and habits. The saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is truly relevant when it comes to heart disease.
There are two types of risk factors: those you cannot control and those that you can. Those that you can’t control include heredity or family history, age, race and gender.
But many risk factors for heart disease can be controlled by making changes in your lifestyle and habits, and in some cases, by taking medication.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is one of the risk factors for heart disease and can also lead to a stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. Blood pressure is the force of blood against the artery walls and is expressed as two numbers, such as 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). High blood pressure or hypertension is a reading of 140/90 or above. Pre-hypertension is a reading of 120-139/ 80-89. Even pre-hypertension raises your risk of heart disease.
High blood pressure is often called the ‘silent killer’ because it usually has no noticeable warning signs or symptoms until other serious problems arise. Therefore, many people with high blood pressure do not know that they have it. High blood pressure can lead to hardened or stiffened arteries, which causes a decrease of blood flow to the heart muscle and other parts of the body. Reduced blood to the heart muscle can lead to angina or to a heart attack.
One of the most prevalent and hazardous risk factors is smoking. According to the American Heart Association, cigarette smokers have a 70% greater chance of dying from heart disease than non-smokers.
Smoking is definitely one of the “controllable” risk factors. There is no safe way to smoke, if you smoke, quit. Just one year after you stop smoking your heart disease risk will drop by more than half. If you need help quitting, see your doctor or you can call the “Quit Line” at 1-800- QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669). Locally the Wellness Center at NCMH has a smoking cessation program.
Overweight and Obesity
Overweight and obesity are also serious risk factor for heart disease. If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop heart disease or to have heart disease worsen. 32% of heart disease deaths each year are related to being overweight. According to the CDC: “Overweight and obesity are both labels for ranges of weight that are greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height.”
For adults, overweight and obesity ranges are determined by using weight and height to calculate a number called the “body mass index” (BMI).
• An adult who has a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.
• An adult who has a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.
Obesity and overweight also increases the risks for stroke, congestive heart failure, gallbladder disease, diabetes, arthritis, breathing problems, as well as breast, colon and other cancers.
In our society where our schedules are so busy and we are constantly bombarded with ads for fast food, supersizing, and foods with little nutritional value, this if often one of the most difficult risk factors for individuals to manage. However, what and how much you eat is a choice. We all need to:
• Push the butter out of your way — or ask for reduced fat margarine instead.
• Order your dressings and sauces on the side, so you can control how much you use.
• Stay away from fried appetizers or creamy soups, and begin your meal with broth-based soups like minestrone or gazpacho instead.
• When at a salad bar, stay away from high-fat items like cheese, cream dressings, chopped eggs, croutons, olives and bacon bits.
• Ask that your food be made without butter or cream sauces; you’ll be surprised at how delicious meat, fish and chicken can be when broiled “dry.”
• Take the skin off poultry, and remove visible fat from meat.
Diabetes and heart disease often go “hand in hand.” Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, kidney failure, blindness and other diseases. You are more likely to develop “type 2” or adult onset diabetes if you are overweight –especially if your extra weight is around your middle. Being physically inactive and family history or heredity are also risk factors for developing diabetes. If you have diabetes, it is very important to control your blood sugar levels with diet, exercise and medication. Keeping your sugar levels controlled helps to minimize the effects on your body. You can get help preventing diabetes and controlling your diabetes from your doctor and from the Wellness Center at NCMH.
Not getting regular physical activity increases your risk for heart disease as well as risk factors for other diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and overweight. For older women physical inactivity increases the risk for osteoporosis, which increase the risk for broken bones. So you need to keep moving.
If you can’t go to a gym, go to a walking track. We have one in Newberry at the Hospital, one in Whitmire beside the Library, and one in Prosperity between US 76 and Main Street.
Every one of us should evaluate their own risk factors. Every risk factor counts. If you have only one risk factor, you are much more likely to develop heart disease. Having more than one risk factor tends to compound their effects because one will often worsen another’s effects.
In order to control and minimize your risk for developing or making existing heart disease worse, it is essential that you work with your doctor. You may want to ask your doctor: what your blood pressure reading is, what does it mean and what action you need to take; what your cholesterol numbers are and what they mean; to calculate your BMI (body mass index) and waist measurement and ask if your measurements mean that you need to lose weight; what is your blood sugar level and does it mean you are at risk of developing diabetes; Get a thorough check-up and talk to your doctor about safely making the changes in your habits and lifestyle for your risk factors.
The good news is heat disease is a problem you can do something about. Take steps to improve your heart health and reduce your chances of developing heart disease.
Margaret Brackett is from Newberry. Her columns appear weekly in The Newberry Observer.