February is National Heart Month in the United States and United Kingdom, and for good reason: heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S. and men in the U.K. It is the number two killer of women in the U.K.
According to the American Heart Association, one in four adult deaths in the U.S. are attributed to heart disease. That’s an epidemic.
The good news is that heart disease should be manageable. The bad news is that if we were managing it, those heart disease mortality rates I just mentioned would be much, much lower.
Luckily, awareness begins here.
The most important thing you can do in the battle against heart disease is to educate yourself and others on prevention. After all, the easiest way to manage the disease is never to develop it in the first place.
The first step is to know your risk. Have any of your family members been diagnosed with heart disease? If so, how many, and at which ages? Statistics show that the risk for developing heart disease increases with age, but if it’s hit your family members relatively young then that’s important information to have.
Some early warning signs that you are at risk for heart disease are high blood pressure (a range of 140-159 over 90-99), elevated cholesterol, family history of heart disease, sedentary lifestyle, being a regular smoker and/or drinker, and being overweight.
No singular symptom is a guarantee of heart disease, but each carries its own risk. You may only be overweight, with no other warning signs and still develop the disease.
Likewise, cholesterol on its own can be an early indicator. Research has shown that in adults aged 35-55 who did not have heart disease, those who had a history of elevated cholesterol were more likely to develop it later on in life. The longer their history of living with mild/moderately high cholesterol, the greater their chances were, of developing full-blown cardiovascular disease later.
That is, of course, not to say that if you are 35 years old and have slightly elevated cholesterol levels that you are guaranteed to eventually develop heart disease. It just means that you’re lucky, because you have an extra warning sign that you could be at risk, giving you more time to change your habits before it does develop into a crisis situation.
Given the risk factors, it makes sense that some of the best preventative methods for heart disease are to eliminate the symptoms:
- Elevated cholesterol: If you have been diagnosed with elevated cholesterol levels, chances are you have been given advice on restricting your intake of high-fat foods and other cholesterol bandits, like red meat and and dairy products. Take this advice. As a baseline restriction, limit your intake of red meat. If you can’t do without your weekly steak, make sure you are eating the appropriate portion size, trim the fat, and avoid high-sodium marinades and rubs. But whenever possible, switch to less risky proteins like chicken, fish and nuts. It’s no accident that many of the risk factors for heart disease and high cholesterol are the same. Cholesterol is made up of fatty lipids. In unhealthy levels these lipids can block arteries, resulting in heart attack or stroke. High cholesterol has a big price tag attached to it, and it’s essential to take steps to lower it if you don’t want to end up paying in a big way.
- Smoking: This is one of the many risk factors shared between high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Quitting the smoking habit isn’t easy, but it is absolutely necessary if you are serious about your health. Not only does smoking increase your risk for cancer, it also destroys your lungs so that it’s more difficult for you to breathe. Difficulty breathing, in turn, makes it harder to exercise (contributing to weight gain) and makes it harder to get oxygen to your cells, increasing your risk of stroke. Smoking is an addiction and it can be extremely difficult to quit, but the risks of continuing to smoke, massively outweigh the hardship of quitting. One of the best resources to utilize, when trying to kick nicotine, is peer-to-peer support. No one is going to understand what you’re going through better than someone else who has gone through the same.
- Lack of exercise: Physical activity is the best standalone treatment we have for overall better health. It increases metabolism, so that regular exercise almost always leads to reduced weight. It increases oxygen flow to the heart and brain, and even helps alleviate depression. The American Heart Association recommends that we exercise at least 150 minutes per week (30 minutes a day for 5 days). The recommendation is that this is moderate-intensity aerobic activity.
- Nutrition: From pizza to kebabs, it’s certain that Westerners eat too many carbohydrates. We also overdo it on salt, fatty proteins, and high-fat empty-calorie junk food like chips and fried foods. That’s a lot of places to be dropping the ball at once. One easy way to tip the balance into health is to learn portion size. For example, a serving of steak should be about the size of a deck of cards (stacked, not fanned out like on a Vegas card table). The addition of high-fiber vegetables, like broccoli, brussel sprouts, and carrots, can also cut down on calories while making you feel full longer. If in doubt, it’s always a good idea to go back to basics. The food pyramid you probably remember from grade school has changed a bit, but it’s still a great resource for U.S., U.K., and international readers.
This may seem like a lot of change to take on all at once, when you might not ever develop heart disease, but these changes don’t just lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. They will almost definitely increase your life span and life satisfaction overall. And if that’s not enough motivation, it’s good to keep in mind that the process of living with heart disease requires you to do all these things, only with a doctor’s supervision, a more regimented nutrition plan, hospital bills, and no way to repair the damage.
You may have noticed that the measures to prevent heart disease–exercise, eating right, kicking the stimulants and lowering cholesterol–are pretty interdependent. You quit smoking so you can exercise, you exercise so you can lower cholesterol, you lower cholesterol by eating healthy, eating healthy helps you lose weight, losing weight lowers your cholesterol, lower cholesterol gives you more energy and easier breathing so you can exercise more…and on and on.
Living a balanced life is the first step to overall health, and overall health is the best defense against an unhealthy heart. So please, know your risk, take preventative measures, and do your best to treat your heart kindly. Or you might just break mine.
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