Hearts are front and center, so to speak, during February — not only because of Valentine’s Day but also because it has been designated American Heart Month.
“February was designated American Heart Month to bring attention and awareness to the prevalence and severity of heart disease in the U.S.,” said Rebecca Seguin-Fowler, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and associate director for Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Bryan-College Station.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for about one-fourth of all deaths annually. And while that statistic is alarming, the fact is heart disease is often preventable and there are many things people can do reduce their risk.
“Knowing your risk, eating wisely, making physical activity part of your daily routine, getting regular check-ups and managing existing conditions that can lead to heart disease can significantly reduce your risk,” Seguin-Fowler said.
Coronary heart disease and risk factors
The root cause of most types of heart disease is plaque that forms and builds up when arteries become restricted by cholesterol, fatty deposits and calcium. The arteries narrow, making it difficult for blood, and therefore oxygen, to flow to the organs.
“There are many risk factors for coronary heart disease, and the risk increases with the number of factors and how serious they are,” said Amy Valdez, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program manager for the Healthy South Texas initiative, Edinburg.
“Some risk factors include unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyle-inactivity, stress, insufficient sleep and tobacco use,” Valdez said. “And while factors like age, family history and genetics can’t be changed, certain risk factors like high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol can be addressed through medication and by adopting a more heart-healthy lifestyle.”
Seguin-Fowler noted heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women as well as men in the U.S.
“While we’ve made some progress in having both men and women pay more attention to cardiovascular disease, there’s still a lot of work to do. Part of the disconnect is that symptoms of heart disease often show up differently in women. Additionally, many men and women think of heart disease as ‘something they can live with,’ as opposed to what they feel are more serious and immediate threats to their health.”
Develop a baseline and track progress
Self-monitoring is important to knowing risk and keeping on track with heart health goals, Seguin-Fowler said.
“Know where you are on the risk scale for heart disease and get a health professional’s input on the nutritional and behavioral steps you can take to reduce that risk,” she said.
The My Life Check online interactive tool of the American Heart Association can help people assess and track their heart health information to better understand their risk of heart disease and stroke.
She said some information to determine your risk includes knowing your:
— Body mass index, BMI. BMI is an estimate of body fat. Being overweight puts you not only at higher risk for heart disease, but also stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
— Blood pressure. Ask your doctor at what target numbers your blood pressure should be and how often you should check your blood pressure, keeping track of those numbers.
— Cholesterol levels. A blood test can show whether your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels are healthy. Talk with your doctor about having your cholesterol tested, how often you should have it tested and what the appropriate HDL and LDL levels should be.
“Talk to your primary care physician about your heart health risk and, if needed, develop a plan of treatment to help stabilize blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels,” Seguin-Fowler said. “Many people still need medication for high blood pressure or cholesterol even after they make more positive heart-healthy lifestyle changes.”
She said keeping track of weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other measures will show how well you are moving toward your heart-health goals.
“Some online tools, electronic devices and apps can help in collecting and tracking this information,” she said. “You can also keep and update a daily food and drink diary and/or maintain a physical activity log to track the amount and type of your daily exercise.”
Making heart-healthy improvements
Some of the lifestyle changes Texas A&M AgriLife experts suggest for reducing the risk of heart disease include:
— Increasing physical activity. Exercise can help you shed any extra pounds that may cause additional strain on the heart, improve heart strength, lower ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, increase ‘good’ cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure.
Regular physical activity is beneficial for a variety of reasons, including helping reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and certain blood lipids such as LDL cholesterol. It also aids in weight loss and maintenance.
To gain these health benefits, adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week and include muscle-strengthening activities. This can be through brisk walking, recreational swimming, yoga or other moderate-intensity activities. Preferably, this activity should be spread out over the week.
Michael Lopez, AgriLife Extension program specialist, Bryan-College Station, said getting involved in a team-based or community-wide fitness initiative such as the agency’s Walk Across Texas! challenge is a good way to develop a regular physical activity habit.
“Walk Across Texas! is an eight-week program in which teams work together to complete at least 832 miles of walking activity or the equivalent,” he said. “Those 832 miles or more are the goal since that represents the distance between the two farthest apart points of the state.”
Research from the Family and Community Health Unit of AgriLife Extension confirmed the effectiveness of the Walk Across Texas! program to increase and maintain physical activity over eight weeks, even in the case of inactive or low-active participants.
“Loss of muscle mass when we get to midlife or older can be a problem,” said Seguin-Fowler. “As we get older, we need to pay more attention to strength training, like using weights or resistance bands. Muscle is the engine that drives our metabolism, so we need to keep as much muscle as we can as we age.”
However, she noted, just about any type of physical activity is better than being sedentary and there are many ways to get 150 minutes of exercise per week both inside and outside the home.
— Eating a healthy diet. Consuming high amounts of saturated fats or trans fats and refined carbohydrates can lead to overweight and obesity, high blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
“A healthy, well-balanced diet low in sodium and saturated fat is key to heart disease prevention,” Valdez said. “Some of the dietary items in a heart-healthy diet include lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. You should also limit your consumption of foods high in saturated fat, sodium, sugar and other sweeteners. Limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, and limit intake of both fat and added sugars so each is no more than 10% of your daily caloric needs.”
She also noted limiting alcohol intake to two drinks per day for men and one per day for women will help reduce the risk of heart disease.
“Another area where you should focus nutritionally is in eating foods rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids,” Seguin Fowler said. “These are not only found in fish and seafood, but also in plant-based sources such as nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.”
— Getting adequate sleep. While you sleep, your blood pressure and heart rate fall. But when sleep is interrupted, blood pressure and heart rate increase, sometimes dramatically, if you wake up suddenly. Poor sleeping patterns have been linked to angina and heart attack. Most adults require at least seven to eight hours of sleep.
— Reducing stress. Stress can trigger constriction of the arteries, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease, especially coronary microvascular disease. It may also indirectly raise the risk of coronary heart disease if it also leads to poor stress-management behaviors such as smoking or overeating. Stress can also affect energy and hunger and, if chronic, can cause the body to store more fat.
“Find a way to cope with stress through exercise, yoga, meditation, painting, reading a book, taking a nature walk or whatever positive activity works for you,” said Seguin-Fowler. “Avoid those things that trigger stress, as well as the negative and often harmful behaviors stress can often lead you toward.”
— Quitting smoking or vaping. Smoking not only causes damage to the lungs, the chemicals in tobacco smoke can also harm the heart and blood vessels.
“There are a number of tools available to help people quit smoking,” Seguin-Fowler said. “But perhaps the most important aspect of smoking cessation is having a support system that can encourage and help you.”
She said there is also scientific evidence that the flavorings found in vaping products can damage the heart and lungs.
“If you think vaping instead of smoking is a reasonable tradeoff for your heart health, you are mistaken,” she said. “If you don’t smoke or vape, the best thing you can do is not start. If you do, the best thing you can do is quit.”