February marks the start of Heart Health month. Although there is only one month out of the year that is dedicated to heart health, we should all practice health measures to promote heart health and to prevent heart disease all year round.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Although COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death intermittently over the past few months, heart disease still remains the most common cause of death, killing approximately 655,000 Americans each year.1 This equates to approximately 1 in every 4 deaths.1
So, what is heart disease and what causes it?
Typically, when referring to heart disease, we are talking about coronary artery disease, also known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs due to cholesterol-rich plaque, which builds up in the coronary arteries over time, leading to decreased blood flow through those arteries that nourish the heart. When a plaque breaks off, it can block the blood flow to the heart and brain, which can subsequently lead to medical emergencies such as a heart attack or stroke.
What are the risk factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease?
Risk factors for developing heart disease include medical conditions such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Additional risk factors include other modifiable factors such as unhealthy eating habits, limited or no physical activity, being overweight or obese, and a history of smoking. Non-modifiable risk factors include increasing age and a family history of heart disease.
As a primary care physician, one of my biggest goals is to promote prevention because preventive care is the key to decreasing the risk for developing medical conditions such as heart disease.
So, how are some ways to decrease the risk of developing heart disease?
Form healthy eating habits.
It is important to not only form healthy eating habits, but to also maintain those habits. Crash diets are never the answer to maintaining health long-term, and oftentimes persons going through crash diets tend to return to unhealthy eating habits as soon as the diet is done.
It is important to build a structured routine when it comes to eating healthy. A heart healthy diet can greatly reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
So, what comprises a heart healthy diet? This is a diet which consists of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, soybeans and fatty fish. This is unlike saturated fats, which are considered unhealthy including fried foods and processed snacks. Additionally, a heart healthy diet is low in added sugars and added salt. This diet also includes high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Become physically active.
As a physician, I often hear patients state that they get their exercise through work. This can be a great way to exercise if it is approached the right way. According to the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the recommendation is for at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical exercise per week.2 Moderate-intensity physical activity can include fast-paced walking or biking. Muscle-strengthening activities two days a week is also recommended.
For older adults, a multi-pronged approach to exercise is needed which includes aerobic physical activity, muscle-strengthening activity and balance training. All of these components help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular mortality.2
It may seem daunting to develop an exercise routine that meets the ACC recommendations, however, starting in a small way by simply choosing to take a fast-paced walk 10-15 minutes a day can help jump start the process to help improve your heart health.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Once you have figured out a routine that works for you with your busy schedule, it is important to continue to maintain that routine. Intermittent and short-term goals of improving health will not improve heart health on a long-term basis, and should therefore, be avoided.
Manage your stress levels.
Stress is an often-overlooked factor that can impact heart health. Stress is known to increase cortisol levels in the body, which can lead to an increased heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to long term health conditions, which can subsequently affect the heart.
Meditation and deep breathing exercises are a great way to help reduce stress and anxiety levels. Many breathing exercises only take a few minutes, while others can be done for 10 or more minutes for even greater benefits. In order to practice meditation successfully, it is important to first find a place to sit which feels calm and quiet, and to make sure you’re sitting comfortably. The point of meditation and deep breathing is to try to help clear and calm your mind and to instead focus on your breathing, which can ultimately help reduce stress.
Yoga is another great source of exercise and a great way to reduce your stress and anxiety levels, as well as body-wide inflammation. Ultimately yoga can help improve heart health by addressing several factors that contribute to heart disease including high blood pressure and excess weight gain.
Heart disease is a very common health problem in the United States. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent it from occurring. It is important to focus on preventive care in order to address such medical conditions that can have a tremendous impact on our lives.
Dr. Avi Varma is a Board-Certified Family Medicine Physician and Public Health advocate working for a non-profit organization fighting the HIV epidemic in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a co-host of the popular podcast “Brown Girl White Coat”, and you can find more details about her here: https://linktr.ee/dr.avivarma. Be sure to follow her @dr.avivarma on Instagram.