Health Matters: Four Ways to Prevent Heart Disease
Heart disease kills more people in America than any other illness. It causes one in every four deaths—that’s about one every 37 seconds. Given these sobering statistics, it’s important to understand the risk factors that lead to heart disease and actions you can take to improve your heart health.
Heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease, reduces blood flow to the heart, which can lead to three main problems:
- Angina (chest pain) or heart attack (damage to the heart muscle due to a blocked artery)
- Arrhythmia (heart palpitations caused by an irregular heartbeat), or
- Heart failure (the inability of the heart to supply the body with oxygen-carrying blood causing shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the veins in your feet, ankles, legs, midsection, or neck).
In my medical practice at Hillside Health Center, I see patients who are at risk for heart disease every single day. Those risk factors include obesity, diabetes, using tobacco and/or alcohol, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic stress, a diet high in saturated fats, lack of physical activity, and lack of sleep. Although family history is a risk factor, it is difficult to know whether it is genetics or similar habits and environments that contribute most to the risk. The good news is that for many people, heart disease is preventable.
Four Heart-Healthy Habits
The first and most important way to reduce the risk of heart disease (and many other illnesses) is to get enough sleep, yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of US adults report getting fewer than the recommended minimum of seven hours a night. To improve sleep, make your bedroom dark, cool and quiet, and make it a digital-free zone (no cell phones, tablets, or computers right before bedtime).
Next comes good nutrition, which means a diet that includes mostly plant-based food with whole, natural ingredients. If your food only contains ingredients you could have found it in your grandmother’s pantry, it’s probably pretty good for you. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients the better. When choosing what to buy, if it comes in a shiny package or if you have to be a chemist to pronounce the ingredients, put it back on the shelf.
You don’t have to make radical changes to your diet overnight and I certainly don’t recommend fad diets. The best approach is to make small, sustainable changes. Start by replacing some saturated fats with unsaturated fats, healthy ones like those found in olive oil, avocado, fatty fish like salmon, hard cheese, and nuts. Consider reducing red meat in favor of poultry, fish, and plant-based sources of protein like quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), beans, and nuts. And choose unsweetened drinks over sodas.
The third way to reduce heart disease is by increasing your physical activity. Walk more. Garden more. Play disc golf. Take you children or grandchildren to the park. Find a buddy or a group to exercise with and hold each other accountable. Every little bit counts. Not only does physical activity make you stronger, it also reduces stress, and if you do it with a group, it provides another source of connection and belonging.
The final recommendation is to stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk for all sorts of illnesses because it puts such a serious strain on your lungs and your whole cardiovascular system. Most people cannot quit without support, either from a medical provider or a smoking cessation group. And almost no one quits for good the first time. So, be patient with yourself, and recognize that the nicotine in cigarettes is about as addictive as heroin. But you can quit. People do it all the time.
Putting it All Together
More sleep will improve your physical and emotional health, and it can help increase your will power to say no to sweets and overeating. When you eat better, you feel better, and when you feel better, you’re more likely to exercise. One good habit supports another. If you need help putting a plan together, talk to your primary care provider.
Damara Luce is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people residing in Lake and Mendocino Counties.