The chances are very likely that you or someone you love will be affected by heart disease at some point in your life. Know the lifestyle habits that help you maintain a strong heart, prevent heart disease, and live well even after suffering a heart attack.
Our heart is a powerful organ that constantly works, never pausing to rest. The heart functions as a pump to supply blood and oxygen to all parts of the body through a system of blood vessels. It typically beats – or expands and contracts – about 100,000 times a day. Having a healthy heart gives us more energy, helps our organs function better, keeps our bodies stronger, and ultimately helps us live longer. The better care we take of our heart, the more physically and emotionally happy we will be now and in the future.
As we get older, however, we become more susceptible to suffering from heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. Every 34 seconds someone in the United States suffers a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. Other types of heart disease include heart failure, an irregular heartbeat and heart valve problems.
Learn how to protect your heart from disease with the following heart healthy living strategies. These strategies go a long way in helping you prevent or live well with other chronic diseases and conditions as well because heart healthy living is beneficial to your overall health.
Coronary heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, is a term used to describe several common problems that cause heart damage. As we already stated, our heart needs oxygen-rich blood to survive and thrive, so it’s very important that our arteries stay as healthy as possible since they are the vessels carrying that blood.
On the surface of the heart are coronary arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. When coronary arteries become narrowed due to buildup on the walls or if blockage occurs, the heart suffers and becomes starved for oxygen and nutrients and may get damaged resulting in a heart attack. The health of our heart can become compromised when our blood vessels, including those arteries that feed the heart, aren’t working efficiently.
You have most likely heard of the term plaque. It’s a waxy substance made up from the buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances. Over the years, plaque may form on the walls of our arteries, slowly getting thicker and thicker, until eventually the openings of the arteries narrow and blood flow is reduced. This condition is called atherosclerosis. Eventually an area of plaque may break open inside an artery, causing a blood clot to form. If the clot is large enough, it can partially or completely block blood flow through the heart muscle. This condition in which the heart muscle isn’t receiving enough nutrients or oxygen is called ischemia. Eventually ischemia can result in damage or death to part of the heart muscle and that is what causes a heart attack.
People young and old develop heart disease. But diseases of the heart are more prevalent in the older populations. For instance, the average age of a heart attack for women is in the early seventies, and the average age of a heart attack in men is 66, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Clearly, we don’t have any control over our bodies aging. There are other risk factors that we can’t control as well such as having a family history of heart disease. Your risk of heart disease increases if your father or a brother was diagnosed with heart disease before 55 years of age, or if your mother or a sister was diagnosed with heart disease before 65 years of age, reports the National Center for Health Statistics.
There are some risk factors that are in our control and if you have them are you are more likely to develop heart disease and have a heart attack. These risk factors include:
- Having high blood pressure
- Having high blood cholesterol
- Being overweight and obese
- Eating an unhealthy diet (for example, a diet that is high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium)
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Having high blood sugar due to insulin resistance or diabetes
Some of these risk factors—such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar—tend to occur together. When they do, it’s called metabolic syndrome. In general, a person who has metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop diabetes as someone who doesn’t have metabolic syndrome, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Prevention and Maintenance
In about 50 percent of cases, the first sign of heart disease is a heart attack or sudden death. That’s why it’s imperative that you get regular screenings. Many doctors recommend that all adults get a heart health screening every year by their primary doctor, which should include a check of blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and height and weight. Be sure to tell your doctor if you smoke, as well as what your physical fitness and dietary habits are. In addition to getting routine screenings and having that communication with your doctor, there are other steps you can take to either reduce your risk of heart disease or keep the disease in check if you already have it.
Number one is to quit smoking. Smoking greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack but just one year after quitting, your risk is cut in half and continues to decrease the longer you avoid smoking. There are many smoking cessation programs available. Smokers have more tools than ever to help quit for good. If one hasn’t worked, try another. And remember, your body enjoys immediate benefits once you quit. For example, just 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drops.
Another way to protect the heart is to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a healthy range. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder, raising the risk of heart disease. High cholesterol levels lead to more plaque build-up in the artery walls, again raising the risk of heart disease. There are medicines you can take to lower both your blood pressure and cholesterol, but there are also healthy lifestyle habits you can adopt to naturally lower those levels as well. Eat a heart-healthy diet that is low in sodium and high in potassium, start exercising, and lose weight if you are overweight.
Carrying around excess weight makes you more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, and raises your risk for heart disease. If you have weight to lose, set a goal of taking off about 10 percent, which can have a tremendous effect on your health. You have two weapons to help you in this battle: exercise and healthy food choices.
Don’t look at exercising as a chore. Find an activity you enjoy such as walking, dancing, water aerobics or yoga. Aim to be active about 30 minutes most days of the week. Ask a friend or family member to exercise with you. Even if you have never been active before, you can start today and you will notice results right away. Of course, always talk to your health care provider before starting an exercise program or increasing your activity level. Not only will exercise help you lose weight and make your body strong, it is also proven to improve mental and emotional health.
Your heart works hard to keep your body functioning and strong. Think of healthy eating, not as a negative but as a positive. You are rewarding your heart for all the hard work it does. The American Heart Association recommends that you pile your plate with plenty of fruits and vegetables and fiber-rich whole grains every day in addition to having several servings of oily fish a week. Choose low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources. Also include nuts, legumes, and seeds in your diet while limiting saturated fats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed meats. Fats play an important role in a healthy diet. Your heart will benefit from fats found in plant-based oils, such as peanut, olive, and safflower. Other great sources of healthy fat include avocados, ground flaxseed, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and anchovies. Any fat, healthy or not, should be consumed in moderation. Also, cut down on salt. Flavor your foods with herbs and spices.
When a Heart Attack Happens
As we mentioned earlier, most heart attacks occur because of plaque buildup inside the coronary arteries. Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture inside an artery, causing a blood clot to form on the plaque’s surface. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery. If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die. Healthy heart tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This heart damage may not be obvious, or it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.
How do you know if you or someone you love is having a heart attack? A common sign is chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that often lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. The feeling can be mild or severe. Heart attack pain sometimes feels like indigestion or heartburn. All chest pain should be checked by a doctor.
There are other common signs of a heart attack. You may feel upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach. You may feel shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness or sudden dizziness. Sleep problems and lack of energy are other symptoms. The more signs and symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you think you or someone you are with is having a heart attack.
Taking Care After a Heart Attack
Many people have heart attacks and then go on to lead healthy, normal, active lives. If you get help quickly, treatment can limit damage to your heart muscle. Less heart damage improves your chances for a better quality of life after a heart attack.
After a heart attack, your doctor will advise you on lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and reducing your weight, as well as prescribe medications and a cardiac rehabilitation program to help your heart.
If you have or are at risk of having heart disease, there are resources available to help you take control of your health and minimize your risk of heart attack. Talk to your health care team, follow the instructions they give you and find support in friends and family. The health of your heart is in your hands. Get regular screenings, enjoy daily walks, load up on healthy fruits and vegetables, take medications prescribed by your doctor. When you follow a heart healthy living plan, you are taking steps to ensure a healthy, active, productive and independent lifestyle.