February is American Heart Month, a campaign sponsored by the American Heart Association to bring awareness to heart disease and prevention.
Most people don't realize that heart disease, not cancer, is the leading cause of death in the U.S. In fact, heart disease kills more women than ALL forms of cancer combined. (AHA) According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, heart disease was responsible for 25% of all deaths in the U.S. in 2006.
Those are sobering statistics, but there's still plenty of cause for optimism. Unlike cancer, which so often seems mysterious and capricious, many forms of heart disease are more predictable, preventable and treatable. In fact, many of the risk factors for heart disease can be managed through lifestyle changes alone.
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- High cholesterol. Your cholesterol levels are controlled in part by your food choices and part by your genetics. Cholesterol is essential in your body, but too much LDL or "bad" cholesterol can cause plaque and blockages in your arteries. A diet low in trans fats and saturated fats and high in fiber can help keep cholesterol levels low. Regular exercise helps your body make HDL or "good" cholesterol.
- High blood pressure. High blood pressure is called the "silent killer" because it has no symptoms that you can feel, yet the AHA considers it the most significant risk factor for heart disease. High blood pressure is often well controlled with lifestyle changes like the DASH diet, smoking cessation and regular exercise.
- Diabetes. Heart disease is one of the leading side effects of diabetes. Fasting blood sugar levels above 100 are a sign that you may be diabetic or prediabetic, and your body may be losing its sensitivity to insulin. You can reduce your blood sugar (and your risk of heart disease) by eating a healthy diet that keeps your blood sugar steady throughout the day, exercising regularly to increase your body's sensitivity to insulin, and taking insulin if it has been prescribed by your doctor.
- Cigarette smoking. Cigarettes cause harm throughout your body, but the effects on your heart and circulatory system are especially devastating. According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, chemicals in cigarette smoke damage blood cells and blood vessels, increasing the risk of plaque build up and hardening of the arteries. Smoking also increases the risk of peripheral artery disease, which can lead to heart attack or strok.
- Overweight and obesity. Too much fat, which is an issue for 2/3 of Americans, increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Even small reductions in weight can improve heart function and circulation.
- Poor diet. For optimal heart health, the AHA recommends a diet low in saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugars and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, unrefined whole grains. lean proteins and fish varieties that are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.
- Physical inactivity. Regular physical activity helps you lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol profiles, increase insulin sensitivity, and maintain a healthy weight. Each of these in turn reduces your risk of heart disease. To gain the heart-healthy benefits of exercise, you should get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five days per week. You may need more exercise if you're trying to lose weight, but build up gradually.
- Alcohol use. Too much alcohol can raise triglyceride levels and blood pressure, and the added calories can make maintaining a healthy weight more difficult. Although some studies have shown moderate alcohol use improves HDL cholesterol levels, the AHA recommends other options, such as exercise, to gain the same effect. If you do drink, limit your intake to one drink daily for women or two drinks for men.
This February, show your heart some love by making healthy lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of heart disease. Do you know someone who changed their risk factors for heart disease by implementing some of these lifestyle changes? Share your story in the comments section.
(photo credit: Yampyank)