A recent survey conducted by the Cleveland Clinic that included over 1,000 men and women revealed some alarming facts. Approximately 74 percent of Americans are not worried about dying from heart disease, and 32 percent are not taking any steps to prevent the condition. Even among those with a family history of heart disease, only 26 percent are proactive in protecting their health.
The survey was conducted as part of Cleveland Clinic’s “Love Your Heart” consumer education. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Each year about 600,000 people, or one in every four deaths, die from the disease. In 2001, at age 64, that number included my mother.
Many of us share common misconceptions regarding heart health. The survey found that 44 percent think vitamins can lower cholesterol and 61 percent wrongly believe vitamins or supplements can help prevent heart disease. When it comes to salt, we think cheese is the biggest culprit, blissfully unaware that our breads typically have higher sodium content. We also think there is a “heart disease gene” that can help identify risk. Although a family history of heart issues is a significant risk factor, no such gene has ever been identified.
Cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, believes that in many cases, heart disease is preventable. In her work with patients, she gives these 10 tips for reducing your risk of cardiovascular trouble:
- Know your numbers. Keep track of blood pressure, cholesterol, hemoglobin A1c and inflammatory markers.
- Watch your diet. Paying attention to what you eat can decrease your risk for heart disease by as much as 30 percent. A diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil is a major cornerstone of good heart health.
- Exercise. Go for two and a half hours of moderate exercise every week. That’s only 30 minutes/day.
- Manage your stress. Stress takes a toll on the heart, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Other stress hormones, such as cortisol, can cause inflammation.
- Master the art of well-being. Positive emotions like optimism, contentment and laughter can lower stress and boost the immune system.
- Keep your arteries healthy. Arteries should be clear of plaque and flexible. A healthy diet can help decrease cholesterol, lower blood pressure and prevent clotting. This results in better artery health.
- Be aware of gender differences in heart disease. While men may experience chest pain, arm pain and shortness of breath as signs of a heart attack, in women the symptoms can also include jaw pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and trouble sleeping.
- Talk to your family. Although 80 to 90 percent of heart disease is due to lifestyle choices, a significant family history can accelerate the onset of problems. Early knowledge can give you a better chance for impacting personal outcomes.
- If you are a woman, consider your pregnancy history. High blood pressure or elevated sugars during pregnancy put women at a higher risk of heart disease later in life.
- Be proactive about screenings. If you have multiple risk factors (smoker, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or diabetes) or a strong family history, get screened to determine your personal risk. Aggressive prevention can lead to a healthier heart and a longer, more vibrant quality of life.
My personal list would include two more guidelines: Maintain a healthy weight, and don’t use tobacco. Heart health can be a very individual thing, but these tips include behaviors everyone can adopt to lower their risk. If my mom were here, she would tell you “because I said so” and mean it.
This article was written by Karan Summitt. Karan is a Community Health Educator and an Employee Health Coach at St. Bernards Medical Center. She holds a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer sciences from Harding University in Searcy and has extensive training and experience in weight loss and healthy lifestyle management, with emphasis on healthcare needs of seniors. She submits a weekly lifestyle “column to The Jonesboro Sun entitled “The Diet Gal” and also writes a “Successful Aging” column for the magazine NEA Seniors.