Story last updated at 1/14/2009 - 10:39 am
Heart disease kills more Americans than any other disease. With primary risk factors, including tobacco use, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and family history, heart disease stands a good chance of jeopardizing our lives and health if we don't take steps - starting right now - to prevent it.
Tobacco use is one of the five major risk factors that lead to a heart attack. If you smoke and you want to have a healthy heart, you need to quit. Quitting smoking is hard, but kicking the habit has become a little easier because of the availability of certain medications.
Another major risk factor is something you can control more than you can prevent - diabetes. Diabetes is hard on the arteries, but its effect can be tempered by controlling blood sugar through diet and proper medication.
High cholesterol, or "hyperlipidemia," is a risk factor for heart disease that, for many, requires a tremendous change in lifestyle to bring under control. Few of us want to say no to cheeseburgers and fries, yet that's what we must do - at least to some degree - if we want to have healthy hearts.
A heart-healthy diet includes limiting fat intake to less than 30 percent of your calories for the day. "Saturated" fats - those which are solid at room temperature, such as lard, shortening, butter and stick margarine, should make up less than 10 percent of your total daily calories.
A diet that contributes to a healthy heart also includes lots of fruits and vegetables. Studies indicate that vitamins C and E, as well as beta carotene - all found in certain fruits, vegetables and whole grains - may help decrease or delay the risk of heart disease. The key is moderation. Limit red meat consumption to a couple of times a month. Cut down on fatty foods and dairy products. Mediterranean diets, high in fish, olive oil, grains and fruits, have been shown to be very heart-friendly. Red wine is good for you, and so is red grape juice.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is another medical condition that places you at risk for heart disease. If you have it, you can control it through medication. Lowering your salt intake, losing weight and controlling stress will help prevent it.
The only risk factor that we can't correct is having a family history of heart disease. But you're not automatically a candidate just because your uncle had a heart attack at age 75. You are at risk for a heart attack if there is a history of men having heart attacks before age 50 and women having them before age 55.
If you want to have a healthy heart, you're going to have to work a little for it. Engage in aerobic exercise 3-4 times a week, and although a leisurely stroll is better than nothing, it doesn't really count unless you get your heart rate up and keep it up. A good rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 220 and keep your heart rate at 70-75 percent of that number for 30 minutes.
On another note: What you may have heard is true; an aspirin a day helps keep a heart attack away. Even a baby aspirin can help, but be aware that aspirin can make a stroke more serious in some people. Ask your doctor if there's any reason you shouldn't start taking aspirin.
Heart disease presents a very real threat to everyone, so being aware of these risk factors and doing what you can to control them is a crucial strategy in the war against the disease. But that's not all you need to do to keep your heart healthy. The other key part of that strategy should be to learn to recognize the symptoms of heart problems - if you do develop them - early on, before your heart becomes too damaged to recover.
Nearly 1.5 million Americans will be treated for a heart attack this year, and as many as another 250,000 will die before they reach a hospital. That's why every minute counts. Seek immediate medical attention when you feel chest pain or any discomfort in the chest, arms, throat, or jaw. Often, people are unsure whether their symptoms are indicating that they might be having a heart attack. If you are uncertain, call your physician, who will be able to tell you the best thing to do. The earlier you are diagnosed and treated, the better chance your heart stands for making a full recovery.
The Top Five Things You Should Know...
1. Quit smoking.
2. Control your cholesterol.
3. Lower your salt intake.
4. Lose weight.