Nearly half of all adults in the United States have some type of heart disease, which can build slowly over time to cause health issues or lead to a cardiac event. Heart attacks and strokes, occurring as a result of cardiovascular disease, limit blood supply to the heart or brain.
Cardiovascular disease is not an “old person’s problem”—the disease and the conditions that lead to it can start at any age.1 Half of us have at least one of its top-three risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.1
Whether you have these heart disease risk factors or not, it’s never too soon to take control of your health. We interviewed Best Doctors cardiology expert Dr. Matthew Sorrentino for tips on maintaining a healthy heart. Our eight tips will help you take charge today.
Cardiovascular disease is most commonly seen as coronary artery disease, or CAD, that leads to a heart attack. CAD is a narrowing of the arteries, which is usually caused by atherosclerosis, the buildup of cholesterol and fatty deposits into the artery walls.
“Cholesterol deposition can begin as early as the second decade of life,” Dr. Sorrentino says. “Cholesterol levels in the blood stream are influenced both by cholesterol and saturated fat intake in the diet and by genetic factors,” he explains.
High blood pressure is also a risk factor for heart attack and stroke; normal blood pressure is below 120/80, Dr. Sorrentino notes. Age and other risk factors come into play, but it’s important to take steps to lower the blood pressure if above 120 with exercise, a healthy diet and lifestyle, and weight reduction, which we’ll explore in these tips.
If you’ve seen someone in the movies having a heart attack, he’s probably grabbing at his chest while wincing just before collapsing. While a heart attack can look this way, it often doesn’t. Let’s review.
A heart attack happens when an inflamed cholesterol plaque in the wall of the coronary artery becomes disrupted, which leads to a blood clot that blocks the artery. Downstream, the heart muscle is affected, Dr. Sorrentino explains. When this happens, patients may experience:
Some of these symptoms can seem mild and even be present for weeks. When it doubt, get it checked out.
Regular exercise can reduce your risk for heart disease. “Walk your dog every day, even if you don’t have a dog!” Dr. Sorrentino says. Engage in movement that gets the heart rate up for at least 30 minutes daily: take a dance class, meet up with a buddy, hire a trainer, walk 10,000 steps, or challenge yourself to a 5K.
Do moderate aerobic exercise along with at least two days of basic weight training and core exercises, he suggests. Anyone can make time for movement three to four hours a week. Consider that a challenge! But first, check with a doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.
Remember the old rainbow tune? “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, don’t forget purple too.” With a recommendation for nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you should be able to cover them all. Strawberries, peppers, sweet potatoes, bananas, squash, spinach, broccoli, blueberries, grapes, and eggplant, to name a few!
And don’t forget nature’s neutral nuggets, which include whole grains, nuts, and omega-3-rich fish. “The American Heart Association TLC diet and the DASH diet use these principles…and are similar to the Mediterranean diet, which has shown to reduce cardiac events,” Dr. Sorrentino says, adding that unprocessed foods are best for heart health.
Now that you know what foods you should eat for heart health, what should you not eat? “Diet studies have shown that increased levels of saturated fats and trans fats in the diet could increase cholesterol levels,” Dr. Sorrentino says. These are often found in red meat and dairy products like cheese and butter. Try using plant stanols or sterol spreads on bread instead. Trans fats are also found in processed bakery products, cooked up for a long shelf life. Skip them, along with sugary drinks.
As a guideline, Dr. Sorrentino suggests:
Finally, don’t smoke and limit drinking. “There is no safe smoking level,” Dr. Sorrentino warns. “It may cause damage to the lining of blood vessels leading to the accumulation of cholesterol.” Alcohol should be limited to one drink per day for women and up to two per day for men.
If you’re following the eating recommendations above with portion control in mind, you may already be at—or on the path to—a healthy weight and heart. Using the body mass index (BMI) scale, 18.5 to 25 is considered “normal” weight; 25 to 30 is overweight; and above 30 is obese.
“As weight increases, there’s an increased incidence of many unhealthy conditions including high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, and arthritis,” Dr. Sorrentino says, adding that extra fat in the belly area can lead to diabetes and high blood pressure.
A healthy diet along with regular exercise can help men and women of any age reach and maintain a healthy weight. Your heart will thank you.
While stress is a normal part of life, be sure you are managing it to limit its effects on your body. “There’s evidence that chronic stress can increase heart risk likely through an increase in blood pressure,” Dr. Sorrentino says.
Relaxation means different things to all of us. Have hobbies, breathe deeply, enjoy art, play a sport, read a good book. Avoid “all work and no play” for a happy and healthy heart.
Rest also includes making sleep a priority: For most adults, at least seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep most nights is required for the body and mind to perform at their best. Heart-wise, Dr. Sorrentino reports that emerging evidence shows that disrupted or too little sleep may be bad for cardiovascular health. See a doctor if you could have sleep apnea, which can put you at risk for developing high blood pressure.
Heart health and a defense plan go hand-in-hand: there are so many changes you can make to lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, but first, get screened. Talk to a physician about doing a cardiovascular risk assessment, which calculates a 10-year and lifetime risk of developing heart disease, Dr. Sorrentino says. Knowing where you stand, you can decide how to approach the risk factors.
If a parent or sibling has had a cardiovascular event before age 60, there’s an increased risk for you, too. Definitely let your doctor know if there’s a strong family history of heart disease.
At Best Doctors, we encourage you to take your heart health seriously. If you’ve gotten a diagnosis but aren’t sure what to do, you can rely on our staff of medical specialists to give you a second opinion. Using our world-class expertise, we can guide you through important lifestyle changes—and treatment, if needed—that will reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event. If you’re in doubt, we’re here.
Posted In: Health Matters