American Heart Month - 5 Tips to Keep Your Heart Healthy
February is American Heart Month - a month dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and promoting heart health, particularly among women and the elderly. To this day, heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, however, there are lifestyle changes that can help lower the risk of heart disease. In this blog post, we’ll learn more about heart disease, who is at risk and explore some tips to maintain a healthy heart during American Heart Month and beyond.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is defined by the National Cancer Institute as a disease that affects the heart or blood vessels. Of the many varieties of heart diseases, the most common one is coronary artery disease (CAD), which is brought on by the buildup of plaque or fatty deposits within the walls of the coronary arteries. This buildup of plaque is called Atherosclerosis, which develops slowly as cholesterol, fat, blood cells, and other substances in the blood form plaque. As the walls become clogged, there is less space for blood to pass through and bring oxygen to the heart, which may cause chest discomfort or even a heart attack in extreme cases.
What are the signs of heart disease?
Here are signs that you should look for:
Pain, numbness, and/or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying flat
Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
Tiredness or fatigue
Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck
Reduced ability to exercise or be physically active
Problems doing your normal activities
Note: chest pain is a less common sign of heart disease as it progresses – so be aware of other symptoms.
Did you know? Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms or the symptoms may be barely noticeable.
Who is at risk?
People of varying ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds may be susceptible to heart disease. However, certain demographics may be more prone to it than others, such as African Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Europeans. For Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics, heart disease is second to cancer.
Elderly individuals, age 65 and older, also tend to be more likely to develop heart disease as the aging process leads to changes in the heart and blood vessels, elevating the risk. Additionally, people who have a family history of heart disease have a higher risk of developing heart disease than those who don’t.
What increases the risk of heart disease?
The CDC identifies that the following health conditions and behaviors increase the risk of heart disease:
High blood pressure
Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels
Eating a diet high in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium
Not getting enough physical activity
Drinking too much alcohol
What decreases the risk of heart disease?
To decrease the risk of heart disease, the CDC recommends the following:
1) Consume Healthy Foods & Limit Alcohol
To avoid high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar levels, it is recommended to follow a nutritious diet with little to no alcohol. A healthy diet consists of plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods and low amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Read more about making healthier food swaps here. For alcohol consumption, men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per day while women should only consume one.
2) Maintain a Healthy Weight
To prevent obesity and its related risks, such as high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight is essential. It is also important to avoid carrying excess weight as this could put stress on the heart and blood vessels. Eating a healthy diet and staying physically active can help with maintaining a healthy weight.
3) Be Physically Active
Engaging in physical activity is beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. According to the Surgeon General's guidelines, adults should aim for two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week, such as brisk walking or cycling. Meanwhile, children and adolescents should strive for at least one hour of physical activity daily. If you are unsure what type of physical activity is best for you, speak with your medical professional for guidance. Read more about increasing your physical activity here.
4) Don’t Smoke
The habit of smoking cigarettes significantly increases the likelihood of developing heart disease. It is advised to refrain from smoking altogether if you do not currently smoke. However, if you are a smoker, quitting can reduce your risk of heart disease. Your doctor can provide recommendations and resources to help you in the process of quitting smoking.
5) Manage Medical Conditions
If you are taking medication to manage high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, or diabetes, it is important to continue taking the medication and never discontinue taking it without consulting with your medical professional.
If you have not been diagnosed with conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, it is crucial to get your levels checked. Regular blood pressure monitoring is important as high blood pressure usually has no symptoms. Healthcare professionals should measure your blood pressure at least once every two years and test cholesterol levels at least once every four to six years. However, if you have a family history of these conditions it is wise to have your medical professional test more often.
American Heart Month serves as a reminder that heart disease is a serious health concern that affects many people, particularly women and the elderly. By understanding the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease, as well as implementing healthy lifestyle changes such as consuming a nutritious diet, remaining physically active, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, individuals can reduce their risk of heart disease and enhance their overall heart health. It's never too early or too late to start taking care of your heart, so let's make heart health a priority not just this month, but every month.