February is American Heart Month. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States? Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk for heart disease, like quitting smoking and watching your weight.
What is heart disease?
When people talk about heart disease, they are usually talking about coronary heart disease (CHD). It’s also called coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease. When someone has CHD, the coronary arteries (tubes) that take blood to the heart are narrow or blocked. This happens when cholesterol and fatty material, called plaque (“plak”), build up inside the arteries. Plaque is caused by:
- Fat and cholesterol in the blood
- High blood pressure
- Too much sugar in the blood (usually because of diabetes)
When plaque blocks an artery, it’s hard for blood to flow to the heart. A blocked artery can cause chest pain or a heart attack.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked. Part of the heart may die if the person doesn’t get help quickly. Signs of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain (or feeling pressure, squeezing, or fullness in your chest)
- Pain or discomfort in the upper body – like the arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach (above the belly button)
- Trouble breathing (while resting or being active)
- Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or unusually tired
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
Not everyone who has a heart attack will have all the signs.
Don’t ignore changes in how you feel.
Signs of a heart attack often come on suddenly. But sometimes, they develop slowly – hours, days, or even weeks before a heart attack happens. Talk to your doctor if you feel tired for several days, or if other health problems (like pain or trouble breathing) bother you more than usual.
Call 911 right away if you or someone else has signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore any signs or feel embarrassed to call for help. Acting fast can save a life. Call 911 even if you are not sure it’s a heart attack. An ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital. In an ambulance, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) can keep track of how you are doing and start life-saving treatments right away.
People who call an ambulance often get treated faster at the hospital. And, if you call 911, the operator can tell you what to do until the ambulance gets there.
Take steps today to lower your risk for heart disease.
Know your numbers.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol can cause heart disease and heart attack.
Get your cholesterol checked.
Men need to get their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. Women at risk for heart disease need to get their cholesterol checked once every five years.
Get your blood pressure checked.
Starting at age 18, get your blood pressure checked at least once every two years. High blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. Use the “myhealthfinder” tool at www.healthfinder.gov to get more screening recommendations based on your age and sex.
Know your family’s health history.
Your family history affects your risk for heart disease so share this information with your doctor or nurse.
Ask your doctor about taking an aspirin every day.
Daily aspirin can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by preventing blood clots. A blood clot can cause a heart attack or stroke if it blocks the flow of blood to your heart or brain. Aspirin is not recommended for everyone. Talk with your doctor to find out if taking aspirin is the right choice for you.
A heart-healthy diet includes foods that are low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats, sugar, and sodium (salt).
Heart-healthy items include high-fiber foods (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and certain fats (like the fats in olive oil and fish). Check out these heart-healthy recipe collections at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/resources/heart.
Drink alcohol only in moderation.
If you choose to drink alcohol, limit your drinking to no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
Adults need at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. If you are just getting started, try walking for ten minutes a day, a few days each week. Then add more activity over time.
Watch your weight.
Extra weight can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Losing just ten pounds can lower your risk of heart disease. Use this BMI calculator at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI to figure out your BMI (body mass index).
Call 1-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your plan for quitting.
Managing stress can help prevent serious health problems like heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure. Deep breathing and meditation are good ways to relax and manage stress.
Take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
When you have diabetes, there is too much glucose (sugar) in your blood. If it’s not controlled, diabetes can cause serious health problems, including heart disease.
Taking steps to prevent type 2 diabetes – like eating healthy and getting active – can help keep your heart healthy. February is a banner month to put nutrition front and center.
- Feature red fruits and veggies and the phytonutrients they provide. What about a red lettuce salad with red bell pepper and dried cranberries with a raspberry vinaigrette? Or, anyone for sautéed red Swiss chard with red onions? Or a fruit salad with pink grapefruit (it’s okay to stray a little bit on your colors), apples and strawberries, or raspberries?
- Pair some heart-healthy foods for a Valentine’s Day meal – red snapper or salmon with red bell peppers and tomatoes. Add some baby, red-skin potatoes roasted with rosemary. Don’t forget that (fortunately) red wine and chocolate have some heart healthy benefits… in moderation of course!
- Spotlight meatless meal ideas to kick off Lent. Along with seafood, think lentils (and yes, there are red lentils), split peas, beans, and one of the trendy food makeovers – dressed-up mac and cheese. Combine the old favorites with ideas to keep the food heart healthy, such as lower-fat cheeses, chopped veggies, heart-healthy fats and oils.
- Combine the heart-healthy, meatless and leap year theme to focus on the extra time you gain (and the money you can save) by cooking at home or buying prepared foods (healthy ones of course) rather than eating out.
- Put registered dietitians front and center with chefs to combine nutrition, smart-shopping, and culinary tips.
February is great month to put new energy into the resolutions made on January 1 and to get ready for March – National Nutrition Month!
To help prevent heart disease, you can:
• Eat healthy and get active.
- Watch your weight.
- Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Control your cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) and blood pressure.
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
- Take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
- Manage stress.
You are at higher risk for heart disease if:
• You are a woman over age 55
- You are a man over age 45
- Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55
- Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65
As you get older, your risk for heart disease and heart attack increases. But the good news is that heart disease can be prevented.
Editor’s note: This article was provided by the American Heart Association.