Thursday, February 7, 2013

8 Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy

Cardiovascular diseases are typically the result of atherosclerosis, the gradual buildup of plaque along the inner walls of arteries. As the buildup continues, plaque constricts the blood flow through the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack, the formation of blood clots or stroke.

For most, cardiovascular disease is preventable, but you should know your risk factors. Some of these risk factors are beyond your control, such as your gender and your genes. Men typically have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to women, as do people who have other family members who have the disease. There are other risk factors, however, that can be controlled or eliminated by following a healthy lifestyle. It is important to focus on these steps to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease whether or not it runs in your family. Not only will these actions help you lower your risk, they will also help you lead a healthier lifestyle overall.

Here are eight steps that you can take to have a healthy heart and lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease:

1. Know your risk factors. If you have a parent or other close family member with cardiovascular disease, you are at a higher risk. The odds of developing cardiovascular disease also tend to increase as we age. People who have diabetes are also at elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease because chronic high blood sugar is associated with the narrowing of the arteries. People with diabetes also tend to have lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and increased levels of triglycerides (blood fats). These are other factors that compound the risk of heart disease.

2. Make healthy food choices. Your diet can have a major impact on your chances of developing cardiovascular disease. This is an area where we can exercise a great deal of control! Choose wisely and limit your intake of greasy or fried foods, and fatty red meats. Fill your diet instead with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats such as poultry and seafood, and fiber-rich foods such as whole-grain oatmeal and whole-grain breads. Talk to your RD (Registered Dietitian) for your individualized goals.

3. If you’re overweight, get to a healthy weight and maintain it. If you are currently overweight, your odds of developing cardiovascular disease are higher. A loss of just 10 to 20 pounds can help lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Work with your physician or dietitian to find a healthy eating plan that will work for you.

4. Establish and follow a regular exercise program. To reduce the risk of chronic disease, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity most days of the week. Aim for cardiovascular (aerobic) activities such as brisk walking, bike-riding or exercise classes. Consult with your physician to see what forms of activity are appropriate for your age and current physical condition.

5. Have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly. Have your physician check your cholesterol at least once a year and blood pressure at each visit. If either of these sets of numbers is high, your chances of developing cardiovascular disease greatly increase. Your physician may suggest ways to modify your lifestyle by improving your diet and adding exercise in order to bring your numbers under control. This is also the perfect time to meet with a dietitian, who can help you understand a heart healthy diet and your personal nutrition goals. In some cases, your physician may also prescribe medication to help return your cholesterol or blood pressure numbers to normal levels.

6. If you smoke, you should quit. Smoking is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular diseases. According to the American Medical Association, people can cut their risk of developing cardiovascular disease in half within one year of quitting smoking. Now that's a change that's worth it.

7. Get a handle on your stress. Stress may contribute to heart disease. Stress can also cause your blood pressure to rise and may lead to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or binging on unhealthy foods. Try exercise or practicing yoga as a way to combat stress. Take a few minutes out of each day to do something you enjoy, such as listening to music or reading.

8. Don’t ignore possible warning signs. That burning sensation in your chest may be heartburn, but it could also be a warning sign of cardiovascular disease. Other symptoms may include a sense of tightness radiating from the breastbone and into the neck, jaw and arm or a shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t casually dismiss them. Let your physician determine what is causing them and follow his advice.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. While some of the causes are beyond your control, many of them are not. If you follow a healthy diet and lead an active lifestyle, you may be able to reduce your risk of heart disease. Work with your physician to develop a lifestyle plan that is right for you.

Adapted with permission from the "Eight Steps to a Healthy Heart" tip sheet from Oldways Nutrition Exchange.
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