February is American Heart Month, often serving as a reminder of January’s well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. As a cardiologist, I often address misconceptions about risk factors for heart disease, which claims more lives each year than cancer.
Heart Disease Risk factors
When it comes to heart health, one of the biggest mistakes patients make is focusing on a single risk factor, such as cholesterol. In reality, the formation of heart disease is a complex process, and one that involves a combination of genetics and modifiable behavior. So, what exactly are risk factors of heart disease?
Family history, particularly among first-degree relatives, is one of the strongest risk factors of heart disease. If a parent or sibling was diagnosed with heart disease before age 60, you’re at increased risk as well. And while you can’t control genetics, there are significant steps you can take to improve your odds. Factors within our control include hypertension (high blood pressure), cholesterol, diabetes and smoking. Fortunately, these risks can often be mitigated with lifestyle changes.
The American Heart Association recommends 30 to 60 minutes of sustained aerobic activity at least 5 days a week, and more is even better. Patients sometimes assume day-to-day activities like housekeeping or farming suffice for aerobic activity. While frequent movement is beneficial, it doesn’t constitute cardiovascular exercise, which allows you to maintain a high heart rate over an extended period of time. Regular exercise can be a challenge for many patients, especially older men and women who didn’t grow up with organized sports or an active lifestyle. Joint pain can also be an obstacle as we age but shouldn’t stop us from moving. I encourage patients to find something they enjoy doing—whether walking, swimming or cycling—and stick with it.
Good news is, most insurance companies cover cardiac rehab for patients with a diagnosis of heart disease. Cardiac rehab varies by medical center, but is typically a monitored, six-week course of mild to moderate exercise. For many patients, cardiac rehab helps boost confidence and serves as a springboard to independent workouts. Those without access to cardiac rehab often take advantage of free or low-cost program tailored to older adults. Talk to your doctor if you’re unsure of available programs in your community.
Diet and heart disease
Adopting a heart healthy diet is also critical to keeping heart disease at bay. That means avoiding processed foods and those high in trans fats and cholesterol, and consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. It’s easy for patients to get confused by fad diets promising quick weight loss, so I encourage them to aim for burning more calories than they consume. Carbohydrates, while essential to proper nutrition, often comprise 70 percent of calories in the typical American diet. So, limiting carbs can greatly reduce caloric intake and lead us to healthier food choices.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, compliance with your physician’s recommendations is critical. Sometimes patients are uncomfortable addressing concerns with their doctor, but I encourage patients to have those tough conversations. If something is standing between you and good health, we want to help and won’t be offended by questions. Patients can also be embarrassed to discuss their inability to stop certain behaviors, whether smoking or overeating.
Remember that your physician is there to support you–not to judge. We’re here to equip patients with advice, resources and medical treatment based on years of studies and proven guidelines. If you don’t have a provider you trust, find one willing to walk alongside you in your journey to better health. And never be embarrassed to speak up.
About Dr. Long:
Brian Long, M.D., is an interventional cardiologist at Vanderbilt Heart at Williamson Medical Center. His office can be reached by calling (615) 875-5337.Share this Article