Guest Post by Caitlin Hoff
February may be the shortest month of the year, but with it comes with some amazing holidays. You might be planning your special date night for the 14th, but how are you celebrating the rest of your month? In case you were unaware, February is American Heart Month! Did you know that heart disease is the number one leading cause of death for adults in the United States? During American Heart Month, healthcare professionals and organizations like the American Heart Association actively educate individuals on the importance of heart disease prevention. So what should you know and how can you help?
First, you need to take care of your heart. To do this you, need to know your own risk of developing heart disease. Some people are predisposed to heart disease based on factors that are uncontrollable. These factors include age, gender, race, family medical history, and your own previous experiences with a heart attack or stroke. However, there are also a handful of risk factors that you can control to reduce your risk of heart disease. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking habits, obesity, and lack of exercise. By controlling these risk factors, you can influence your odds for heart disease later in life. The organization Go Red for Women runs a campaign encouraging people to know their numbers. If you aren’t certain about any of these risk factors, take the time this month to see your doctor and learn about both your numbers and your potential risk for heart disease.
Once you know your numbers, there are actionable steps that you can take to keep these risk factors in check. Here are the risk factors to be aware of and the tips for how to beat the odds of heart disease:
High Blood Pressure - Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is caused by a buildup of pressure against the walls of your blood vessels. High blood pressure requires that your blood vessels and heart work extra to transport oxygen throughout the body. Over time, consistent high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and your heart, making them less efficient. Frequent stress, smoking, extra weight, and a diet high in sodium or saturated fats all contribute to high blood pressure.
If you are at risk for or have been diagnosed for hypertension, experts from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the American Heart Association, and the Mayo Clinic, recommend the DASH diet. This includes foods low in sodium, saturated and trans fats, while rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein. Think whole grains, lean meats, and nutrient-dense vegetables.
High Cholesterol - Did you know that 78 million Americans suffer from high cholesterol levels? Similar to high blood pressure, the causes of high cholesterol are generally related to lifestyle habits like a lack of exercise, a poor diet, smoking or diabetes. To keep their cholesterol in check, many Americans are prescribed medications like statins or secondarily blood thinners to combat artery-blocking plaque caused by high cholesterol. However, these medications both comes with a certain degree of risk. Statins have been known to cause memory issues, liver and/or muscle damage, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, while blood thinners can potentially lead to serious side effects like severe cases of bleeding or death.
To avoid these adverse side-effects and treat high cholesterol naturally, there are several steps that you can take. Do you smoke? Quit. Don’t exercise? It’s time to start! Making these healthy lifestyle changes will not only strengthen your heart, but they will also reduce your risk for other serious health conditions in the future. On top of that, researchers from the Harvard Medical School have found that by adjusting your diet to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats,refined sugars and grains, you can lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) and reduce your risk of heart disease. Here is a list of foods recommended to lower your high cholesterol.
Diabetes - A person with type 2 diabetes has an increased risk of developing heart disease. In fact, they are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than someone without diabetes. To reduce their risk, it’s important for a diabetic to control their symptoms and properly treat their condition. A person with type 2 diabetes requires frequent monitoring of blood glucose levels along with regular insulin injections. For those who struggle to control their blood sugar levels, there are even additional medications prescribed to help. Like statins and blood thinners, however, these medications come with risks and could, in fact, increase their risk for heart disease.
Before these medications are necessary to treat a person’s type 2 diabetes, there are some healthy lifestyle changes that a diabetic can take in conjunction with regular insulin therapy. The first method is exercise; frequent exercise has been shown to help type 2 diabetics control their blood sugar levels and weight (being overweight or obese can make it harder for the body to use insulin effectively). The second step is diet. By learning to use foods to maintain stable blood sugar levels, a diabetic can better control their symptoms. To do this, many diabetics use the glycemic index to understand how certain foods contribute to spikes in blood sugar.
Smoking - Smoking has been shown to raise a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels, impact a type 2 diabetics resistance to insulin, and increase a person’s risk for a heart attack or stroke. This is on top of the fact that smoking has been linked to several types of cancer and other respiratory diseases. No perceived benefit of smoking is worth the numerous and incredibly serious health risks.
Obesity & Lack of Exercise - We lump these two risk factors because they generally go hand in hand. A lack of exercise plays a major part in someone being overweight or obese. Both of these risk factors also exacerbate the symptoms of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes or prediabetes (diagnosed when a person has high blood sugar levels that are also too low to be considered diabetes). By making healthy diet changes and exercising more frequently, a person will not only lose weight, but they can also reduce their risk of heart disease by controlling multiple risk factors.
Once you know your numbers and understand your risk, it’s important to share this knowledge with the ones you love. Take time this February to reach out to your family and friends and talk about heart disease. Explain the risks and prevention methods we discussed today. Together, you can work against your odds of heart disease and support one another along the way!