Fix these six conditions to reduce risk of heart disease

Story Image

Cut your risk in half: When you stop smoking, your risk of heart disease and stroke can be reduced by 50 percent in just one year. | FILE PHOTO

Your heart is in your hands. Heart disease and stroke are largely preventable if you work to lower your risks.

It’s important to know that there are a range of factors that can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing heart disease and having a heart attack or stroke.

The following risk factors can be controlled or treated with help from your healthcare professional. You can modify others by changing your lifestyle.

1. Lower your cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the blood and in all the body’s cells.

A high cholesterol level is bad because cholesterol can build up with other substances in the inner walls of arteries. This buildup, called plaque, can narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow.

Plaques that rupture can cause blood clots that can totally block blood flow in the artery. Clots also can break off and travel to another part of the body. If a clot blocks an artery that feeds the heart, it causes a heart attack. If it blocks an artery that feeds the brain, it causes a stroke.

High blood cholesterol has no symptoms, and many people have it without knowing it. Find out what your cholesterol levels are, so you can lower them if you need to.

If you need to lower your LDL (or “bad” cholesterol), work with your doctor to create a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and an exercise plan.

If you’re overweight, work with your doctor to create a diet and exercise plan to help you lose the extra pounds. Diet and increased physical activity are important, but they may not get you to your goal. If these efforts don’t succeed, your doctor may also prescribe medication.

Even if you need to take cholesterol-lowering drugs, a healthy diet and increased physical activity are still important.

2. Reduce high blood pressure.

High blood pressure (or hypertension) makes the heart work harder than normal. This makes both the heart and arteries more prone to injury. High blood pressure raises the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, eye damage, heart failure and atherosclerosis (fatty buildups in the arteries).

Women have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure if they are 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight (for your height and build), have a family history of high blood pressure, or have reached the age of menopause. More than 73 percent of women ages 65 to 74 have high blood pressure.

What’s more, the risk of developing high blood pressure increases during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester. If not treated, high blood pressure during pregnancy can endanger mom and baby. Women who are taking oral contraceptives should talk to their healthcare provider to evaluate the risks and benefits.

3. Stop smoking.

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the United States.

If you smoke cigarettes (or cigars), you have a higher risk of illness and death from heart attack, stroke and other diseases. These include lung, mouth and throat cancers; chronic lung diseases and infections; heart failure; and peripheral vascular disease (in the legs and arms). Constant exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke increases your risk, even if you don’t smoke.

The good news is that when you stop smoking, your risk of heart disease and stroke can be cut in half just one year later and continues to decline until it’s as low as a nonsmoker’s risk.

4. Get physically active.

Couch potatoes, listen up. If you’re physically inactive you’re much more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

Regular, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity improves your cardiovascular fitness and helps reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Exercise can help control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. It can also help lower blood pressure. For most healthy people, the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week to condition your heart and lungs.

You don’t have to be an athlete to lower your risk. Moderate activities such as walking, gardening, housework or dancing for at least 30 minutes on most days can help your heart. The time may be broken into shorter periods. If you’ve been inactive, you can start with 10 minutes of physical activity, then work up to more.

5. Control obesity/weight issues.

If you have too much body fat, especially if a lot of it is in your waist area, you’re at higher risk for health problems. These include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Women with excess body fat are at higher risk of heart disease, even if they don’t have other risk factors.

Here’s some advice to keep in mind:

Try to reach a healthy weight, and stay there. To lose weight, most women should eat 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day, but not less than 1,200. Losing one to two pounds or less per week is considered a healthy weight loss. (One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories.)

Many overweight and obese women have difficulty losing weight. Stay with your plan. Even modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of body weight) can help lower your heart disease risk.

Treatment of obesity and extreme obesity focuses on substantial weight loss over a long time. Beware of fad diets, programs and products that promise rapid weight loss. Work with your healthcare professional, registered dietitian, or nutritionist licensed or certified by the state. Together you can set up a sensible program of eating and physical activity that will help you reach a healthier weight and stay there.

To calculate your body mass index, click here.

6. Control diabetes.

Diabetes most often appears in middle age and among overweight people. But it’s becoming an increasing problem in children and adolescents.

It affects many more women than men after age 60. Compared to women without diabetes, women with diabetes have from two to four times higher death rates from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control — Women’s Health.

While diabetes is treatable, having it still increases a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke. Many people with diabetes also have high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. This increases their risk even more.

If you have diabetes, it’s critical to have regular medical checkups. Work closely with your healthcare provider to manage your diabetes and reduce or eliminate any other risk factors. If you have a family history of diabetes, ask your healthcare provider for a fasting blood sugar test.

— The American Heart Association