Heart disease (including heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and stroke) continues to be the #1 cause of death in America. In fact, in the U.S., heart disease and stroke are the first and fifth causes of death, respectively. And if you think you’re not at risk, or cardiovascular disease only happens to “old people,” consider this: The lifetime risk for developing cardiovascular disease in relatively otherwise healthy persons at age 45 is nearly 2 in 3 for men and greater than 1 in 2 for women. It’s estimated that 45% of the U.S. adult population is projected to have some form of heart disease by 2035.
Scientific research has discovered many ways to prevent or lessen the effects of cardiovascular disease, but there are several steps the average person can take to help mitigate the risk for heart disease and stroke.
Managing Cholesterol for Better Heart Health
Cholesterol management is another way of reducing your chances for a heart attack or stroke. There are different types of cholesterol. You want to lower the “bad” kind (LDL) and triglycerides, which your body stores in fat cells. On the other hand, you want to raise your “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Your body needs some good cholesterol — but not too much — as it helps get rid of the bad kinds.
A surplus of LDL cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries and make it hard for blood to get to your heart, which can cause chest pain (angina). If the blood supply is completely blocked, you will have a heart attack. But a few simple steps can lower your cholesterol and decrease your risk for heart disease:
1. Ditch the fat. Go for foods like oatmeal, walnuts, tuna, salmon, sardines, and tofu. Stay away from items that are high in trans and saturated fats and simple sugars, such as cake and frosting, cookies, doughnuts, fried fast foods, and frozen pizza.
2. Get moving! Even modest amounts of exercise, like half an hour a day of brisk walking, helps you control weight. It’s also good for other things that put you at risk for heart disease, like diabetes and high blood pressure. Exercise can lower your triglyceride levels and raise your “good” cholesterol. Both are good for your heart.
You may have heard that aspirin therapy is helpful. Some people at high risk of heart attack may be told by their healthcare provider to take a low-dose of aspirin. Low doses of baby aspirin (81/mg/day) can help prevent heart attacks in people with coronary artery disease and in those who have a higher-than-average risk. You should not start aspirin therapy without first consulting your physician. The risks and benefits of aspirin therapy vary for each person. Because aspirin thins the blood, it can cause several complications. You should discuss with your doctor if you have an aspirin allergy or intolerance; are at risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or hemorrhagic stroke; drink alcohol regularly; or are undergoing any simple medical or dental procedure.
Should I Take Aspirin During a Heart Attack or Stroke?
The important thing to do if any heart attack warning signs occur is to call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t do anything before calling 9-1-1. The 9-1-1 operator may recommend you take an aspirin after assessing your risk. Taking aspirin isn’t advised during a stroke, because not all strokes are caused by blood clots. Taking aspirin could potentially make these bleeding strokes more severe.
Understanding the Role Blood Pressure Plays in Heart Health
Have you ever wondered what those numbers mean when your doctor takes your blood pressure? The pressure — blood pressure — is the result of two forces. The first force (systolic) happens when your heart beats. It creates pressure that pushes blood through your blood vessels and capillaries and into the arteries. The second force (diastolic) is created as the heart rests between beats. These two forces are represented by the two numbers (systolic/diastolic) in a blood pressure reading. If a reading is 140/90 or above, the pressure is stretching the walls of the arteries beyond a healthy limit.
High blood pressure (hypertension), with the exception of extreme cases, has no symptoms. But if left untreated, it can cause severe damage to major organs — including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and eyes. In the heart alone, hypertension can cause arterial damage, atherosclerosis, heart failure, and angina — and can also lead to stroke. An individual with high blood pressure is four times more likely to die of a stroke and three times more likely to die of heart disease.
Controlling and reducing your blood pressure can add years to your life. There are several ways to control high blood pressure, including following a healthy diet and reducing sodium intake. Dietary sodium restriction can not only lower your blood pressure but also enhance your response to blood pressure medications.
High amounts of sodium in the diet have been linked to high blood pressure, and multiple scientific studies dating back to the 1940s have demonstrated improved health through lower sodium consumption. Yet the average American continues to consume about 3,400 mg of sodium per day, which is significantly more than the American Heart Association’s recommended levels of 1,500 mg per day.
The National Kidney Foundation offers tips to reduce sodium in your diet.
- Use fresh, rather than packaged, meats. Fresh cuts of beef, chicken, or pork contain natural sodium, but the content is still much less than the hidden extra sodium added during processing in products like bacon or ham. If a food item keeps well in the fridge for days or weeks, that’s a tip that the sodium content is too high.
- Choose fresh fruit and vegetables since they are very low in sodium. Canned and frozen fruits are also low in sodium.
- When buying frozen vegetables, choose those that are labeled “fresh frozen,” and do not contain added seasoning or sauces. Begin reading food labels, as sodium content is always listed on the label.
- Compare various brands of the same food item until you find the one with the lowest sodium content, since this will vary from brand to brand.
- Select spices or seasonings that do not list sodium on their labels, e.g., choose garlic powder over garlic salt.
- Beware of products that don’t taste especially salty but still have high sodium content, such as cottage cheese.
Other means of controlling and reducing high blood pressure include regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, taking your prescription medications, and limiting alcohol intake.
Smoking Cessation Decreases Your Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
There are immediate and long-term health benefits of quitting for all smokers. Some of these changes occur in minutes, and the benefits can add years to your life. Beneficial health changes include:
- Within 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure drop.
- In 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal.
- After 2–12 weeks, your circulation improves and your lung function increases.
- In 1–9 months, coughing and shortness of breath decreases.
- After 1 year, your risk of coronary heart disease is about half that of a smoker’s.
- After 5 years, your stroke risk is reduced to that of a nonsmoker.
- Within 10 years, your risk of lung cancer falls to about half that of a smoker and your risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, cervix, and pancreas decreases.
- 15 years after quitting, the risk of coronary heart disease is that of a nonsmoker’s.
After the onset of life-threatening disease, people who quit smoking after having a heart attack reduce their chances of having another heart attack by 50%. And there are other benefits to smoking cessation:
- Quitting smoking decreases the excess risk of many diseases related to second-hand smoke in children, such as respiratory diseases (e.g., asthma) and ear infections.
- Quitting smoking reduces the chances of impotence, having difficulty getting pregnant, having premature births, babies with low birth weights, and miscarriage.