In the United States, 1 in 5 deaths was caused by heart disease in 2020 making it our leading cause of death. While there are several types of “heart disease,” most of these deaths are from cardiovascular disease, which occurs when the arteries of the heart become blocked by deposits of lipids (fats such as triglycerides and cholesterol). Eventually, cardiovascular disease leads to complete blockage of these arteries which causes a “heart attack.” But even without experiencing a heart attack, chronically blocked arteries in our hearts will lead to irreversible damage and eventually heart failure.
Additionally, where there is cardiovascular disease, there is usually disease of blood vessels to other parts of the body. Damaged arteries to other tissues can lead to strokes, poor circulation to our legs, damage to our kidneys, and even erectile dysfunction.
Fortunately, though some genetic risk factors are beyond our control, there are many things we can do to reduce, or even eliminate, our chances of developing heart disease. Building a healthy lifestyle is our first step to preventing heart disease.
Some of the proven ways to prevent cardiovascular disease:
- Control Diabetes
- Eliminate smoking and tobacco use
- Control Blood Pressure
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Control cholesterol levels
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get adequate sleep
- Manage stress
- Limit alcohol consumption
- See your doctor regularly
Risks and Prevention of Heart Disease
Poorly controlled diabetes is the strongest contributor to developing cardiovascular disease and other vascular issues. Elevated levels of sugar in the blood damage the delicate lining of our blood vessels, allowing blockages to form.
Fortunately, diabetes is controllable! Working with a doctor, making dietary changes, increasing physical activity, and taking the right medications can significantly improve blood sugar levels, and likewise, lower the damage diabetes does to the arteries of our heart and other parts of our body.
Eliminate all tobacco use
Tobacco use is the second strongest risk factor for developing cardiovascular/vascular disease. In total, tobacco causes over 8 million deaths per year worldwide! Using any kind of tobacco affects blood vessels by causing them to be inflamed, which in turn can cause cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, quitting smoking has almost reduction in this risk, and our arteries can even repair some of the damage over time.
Although we don’t have as much data on the heart risks caused by vaping or the use of e-cigarettes, we know that nicotine is the culprit in much of the damage caused by tobacco and vapes can deliver nicotine at several times the level of cigarettes!
There is also a strong association between breathing even slightly polluted air and the development of cardiovascular disease. Frequently cooking over an open flame, using a gas stove, or living in large, polluted cities have all been tied to vascular disease. Simply stated, anything we breathe other than pure, clean air, has been shown to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, and tobacco and other nicotine products are particularly bad.
Control Blood Pressure
The third strongest risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease is uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension). Elevated blood pressure creates unnatural stress on the delicate arteries that deliver blood to our hearts and critical organs. This stress causes inflammation, leading to vascular disease much in the same way that smoking does.
Fortunately, we have many options available for treating high blood pressure. Medications are often necessary, but are very effective and have very few side effects. In fact, most people on blood pressure medications can’t even tell if they are taking them. Other interventions like reducing salt intake, exercising, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and controlling emotional stress can improve blood pressure, as well.
- Excess weight
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated lipid levels (triglyceride and LDL cholesterol)
- Poor blood circulation
- Emotional stress and depression
Sedentary lifestyles are the fourth strongest risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease. Exercise is great for preventing heart disease. Your heart is a muscle, and giving it a good workout on a regular basis improves its health. Additionally, getting adequate exercise helps control other risk factors such as:
In fact, almost every measure of good health is improved with exercise. And it takes surprisingly little exercise to make a big difference! For example, taking a 30-minute, brisk walk 3 times a week can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke by 40%! So, you don’t have to join a gym or become a bodybuilder to see major benefits. Small things like walking to work, parking farther from your office or enjoying a walk in a park can produce significant benefits.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
The food we eat greatly affects how our body functions. Diets with too much salt, saturated fat, sugar, and alcohol increase our risk of heart disease. Here are some foods to eat to keep our hearts healthy:
- Whole grains – These include oatmeal, brown rice, whole-grain breads and pasta, etc.
- Fat-free dairy – Check the labels on milk and cheese products and look for fat-free options. Low fat is another good choice if non-fat isn’t available.
- Fruits – Fresh fruits such as bananas, apples, and oranges are great for your health.
- Vegetables – Other than potatoes (which are starch, not a vegetable, and impact your body very much like table sugar), all vegetables are great for heart health.
- Fish – Fish is the healthiest meat for our hearts. Look for fish like salmon and tuna that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Meat – If you don’t like fish or need some variety, consider lean meats like skinless chicken breast or turkey. Beef is the most likely to contribute to cardiovascular disease (especially if cooked over open flames) and should be eaten only rarely.
Control Lipid Levels
Lipids are comprised of cholesterol and triglycerides. At high levels, lipids are not readily soluble in the blood and tend to deposit along the walls of the arteries, producing vascular disease that ends up with blocked arteries, heart attacks, and strokes. This is surprisingly similar in concept to pouring grease down the sink.
But again, this is only a problem if lipid levels are not controlled. To some extent, lipid levels can be controlled by diet and exercise, but most of us with elevated lipid levels will need medications to bring our lipids to a harmless level.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight increases our risk of heart disease as it contributes to high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Determine if you are overweight by entering your information into a BMI (body mass index) calculator.
Your BMI doesn’t tell the full story, however. Knowing your BMI is a good start, but check with a primary care provider to get the full picture.
Get adequate sleep
Not getting enough sleep can lead to a myriad of health problems including heart disease. A lack of sleep can lead to the following:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Daytime sleeping rather than being active
Interestingly, getting too much sleep can also be harmful to your vascular health. Most people seem to do best when they regularly get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
Furthermore, sleep apnea is a known, independent contributor to poor cardiovascular health. If you snore heavily, or if your partner notices a pause in your breathing during sleep, speak with your doctor. Or if you sleep alone, there are apps for smartphones that can alert you to a problem (ApneaApp (washington.edu)
Too much emotional stress can contribute to heart disease. For example, excess stress leads to poor sleep, increases inflammation, contributes to high blood pressure, and worsens lipid levels.
Stress can also affect your heart in indirect ways. When we are overly stressed, we are less likely to eat a healthy diet, maintain a regular exercise regimen, and more likely to smoke or drink alcohol. Try the following to reduce stress:
- Exercising, particularly outside in nature
- Having fun
- Anything else you find relaxing
If interventions like these are ineffective, discuss your stress levels with your doctor. Excess stress is very common and there are lots of effective treatments available.
Limit alcohol consumption
Your heart is affected by alcohol both in the short term and in the long term. While drinking alcohol, we experience a temporary elevation of heart rate and blood pressure. Long-term effects include:
- Irregular heartbeat – Heart rhythm discrepancies, or arrhythmias, can lead to cardiac arrest or stroke.
- Weakened heart muscle – A heart that can’t circulate blood properly may eventually lead to congestive heart failure.
- Increase blood pressure – High blood pressure (hypertension) causes the arteries to harden which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
See your doctor regularly
Yearly check-ups with your primary care doctor are vital for staying healthy. When you see your doctor, discuss with them any need to monitor:
- Blood pressure
- Lipid level (Cholesterol & Triglycerides)
- Diabetes risk
Blood pressure will be taken during the office visit while cholesterol, triglycerides, and your diabetes risk will be determined by a blood test. Signs of an unhealthy heart may include:
- Blood pressure of 130/80 or higher
- Triglyceride levels over 150 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) above 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) below 40mg/dL for men or 50 mg/dL for women
- A1c results over 6%
Checking for heart disease
Staying ahead of the game is important in keeping the battle to prevent heart disease. CapRock Health offers outpatient lab testing to check for problems with your heart. Give us a call so you can embark on your heart-healthy journey.