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Love your heart

Take steps to reduce heart risks

February 20, 2012

February is American Heart Month—a time to reflect on the sobering fact that heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of both women and men in the United States.

The good news is you have the power to protect and improve your heart health.

The National Institutes of Health and other government agencies have been working to advance our understanding of heart disease so that people can live longer, healthier lives.

Certain risk factors—like getting older or having a family history of heart disease—can’t be changed. But you do have control over some important risk factors such as high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, excess weight, diabetes and physical inactivity. Many people have more than one risk factor. To safeguard your heart, it’s best to lower or eliminate as many as you can because they tend to gang up and worsen each other’s effects.

A large NIH-supported study published last month underscores the importance of managing your risk factors. Scientists found that middle-aged adults with one or more elevated risk factors, such as high blood pressure, were much more likely to have a heart attack or other major heart-related event during their remaining lifetime than people with optimal levels of risk factors.

“For example, women with at least two major risk factors were three times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as women with none or one risk factor,” says Susan B. Shurin, M.D., acting director of NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “You can and should make a difference in your heart health by understanding and addressing your personal risk.”

To tackle your heart risk factors, it helps to know your numbers. Ask your health care provider to measure your blood cholesterol and blood pressure. Then determine if your weight is in the healthy range.

The higher your cholesterol level, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. High blood cholesterol itself doesn’t cause symptoms, so you can’t know if your cholesterol is too high unless you have it tested. Routine blood tests can show your overall cholesterol level and separate levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides. All of these blood measurements are linked to your heart health.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is another major risk factor for heart disease, as well as for stroke. High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because, like high cholesterol, it usually has no symptoms. Blood pressure is always reported as two numbers, and any numbers above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Your weight is another important number to know. To find out if you need to lose weight to reduce your risk of heart disease, you’ll need to calculate your body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight to height). This NIH web page can help: www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/bmicalc.htm. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 means that you’re overweight, while a BMI of 30 or higher means obesity.

Next, take out a tape measure. A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men raises the risk of heart disease and other serious health conditions. Fortunately, even a small weight loss (between 5 and 10 percent of your current weight) can help lower your risk.

NIH has many tools available to help you aim for a healthy weight, including physical activity tips and a menu planner. To learn more, visit www.healthyweight.nhlbi.nih.gov.

A heart-healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Try to avoid saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt) and added sugar.

Regular physical activity is another powerful way to reduce your risk of heart-related problems and enjoy a host of other health benefits. To make physical activity a pleasure rather than a chore, choose activities you enjoy. Take a brisk walk, play ball, lift light weights, dance or garden. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator can make a difference.

Start today to keep your heart strong. Talk to your doctor about your risk and to create an action plan. Love your heart.

—Source: NIH News In Health