If you’ve been watching the show, you’ve heard me talking a lot about heart health lately. That’s because this month is American Heart Month, with the goal of raising awareness about America’s number-one killer. As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I’ve been up close and personal with the damaging and too-often deadly effects of heart disease. I wanted to take a moment to talk about who is at risk and the easy steps you can take to safeguard your heart.
Am I at risk?
Heart disease affects people from all backgrounds. While most people have heard that older men are at high risk, heart disease is also the number-one killer of older women as well. In fact, many lifestyle factors play a key role in developing heart disease. Here are some of the signs that you might be at risk.
- You have high blood pressure. This silent killer can go for years before being discovered since symptoms may not show up until late in the game. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doing any damage. Long-term high blood pressure forces your heart to constantly work overtime, eventually causing heart failure, stroke and a variety of other deadly diseases.
- You have high cholesterol. Cholesterol affects the arteries that carry blood to the heart. It works its way into the walls of your blood vessels and causes damage and inflammation. This scars the vessel and narrows it, which prevents your heart from being able to get enough blood. If the vessel closes off entirely, a person has a heart attack.
- You have diabetes. Diabetics have lost the ability to control their blood sugar. When there’s too much sugar in the blood, it can latch on to the walls of blood vessels and cause damage. That damage can decrease circulation to certain areas of the body and prevent the body from healing itself effectively. That damage also puts someone at higher risk for a stroke or heart attack and for serious complications if they recover.
- You’re overweight or obese. Being overweight and eating a diet full of saturated fat with few fruits and vegetables accelerates the accumulation of harmful deposits in your blood vessels and predisposes you to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
- You don’t exercise. Exercise is the best way we know of to strengthen your heart, keep your blood pressure low and stave off diseases like those mentioned above that can increase your heart disease risk. If you’re not exercising, you’re increasing your risk.
- You drink too much alcohol. I’ve talked about the benefits of small amounts of alcohol on my show, but having more than one to two drinks daily can actually damage your heart and increase your risk for heart disease.
- You smoke. Smoking is a key risk factor for heart disease. Smoking at all is a risk factor, but the longer you’ve smoked, the higher your risk.
What can you do about it?
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to drop your risk. I often have patients come and see me who feel they’re too far gone. They’re obese; they have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes; they smoke; and they’ve never eaten well. They’re desperate to change, but they think their future has already been written in the choices of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every step you take toward a healthier lifestyle drops your risk and adds years to your life. Here are some of the things you can do.
- See your doctor. If you’re going to fight your risk factors, you have to know what they are. See your doctor and get your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol tested. Also find out your BMI and waist circumference. Your doctor can help walk you through ways to lower your risk for heart disease and help identify the best ones to start with.
- Pick something small at the beginning. Change can be challenging, but remember that anything you do is lowering your risk. Set yourself an achievable goal and get someone to hold you accountable.
- Quit smoking. If you smoke, quitting will probably be one of the hardest things you ever do. It will also dramatically drop your heart disease risk and literally add years to your life. Get started on a quit plan and drop smoking for good.
- Take your medications. If your numbers are high, your doctor will probably put you on something to bring them down. Follow his or her advice. These medications will help bring your risk down as much as possible in the short term. Starting one doesn’t mean you’ll be on it forever, but it might buy you some time while you make changes in other parts of your life.
- Start an exercise program. There are many things you can do to drop your risk, but exercise hits more risk factors than any other strategy. It will drop your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol while helping to control diabetes. You don’t have to start out with marathons. Getting a 20 to 30 minute walk in every day will start you on a path to good health.
If you think you’re at risk, don’t lose hope. You have the power to change your health and get your heart back on track.