Focus on wellness: Take action to beat heart disease

Diet, exercise, and attention to risk factors can reduce your odds

Walnuts in their shells

Image caption: Walnuts are among the foods that are high in nutrition and good for your heart's health.


This content is provided to Johns Hopkins employees through a partnership with EHP.

If you're at risk for heart disease, there's good news. Many people can take steps to greatly reduce their chances of developing it. Even if you already have atherosclerosis or have had a heart attack, there's a lot you can do to prevent future heart problems.

Surgeries, procedures, and medicines such as cardiac catheterization, bypass surgery, angiography, stents, and cholesterol-lowering medicines are helping many people with heart disease live longer. Even so, heart disease is still the most common cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association. You can help make sure you don't become a statistic by taking steps to lower your risk.

Risk factors

Some risk factors are beyond your control. You can't change your gender (males have a higher risk), your family history, or your age (risk increases with age).

Other major risk factors can be changed. You can help lower your risk for developing heart disease by making positive lifestyle changes. Even if you already have heart disease, doing these things can help you prevent a future heart attack:

Stop smoking. Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers.

Control high blood pressure. If you have blood pressure higher than recommended, work with your health care provider to lower it.

Control high cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol, particularly if you have high LDL ("bad") cholesterol, work with your health care provider to lower it. Even a 10 percent reduction in your total cholesterol may lower your risk for heart disease.

Lose extra weight. Your heart and blood vessels are under constant stress to pump blood to all your body tissues. If you are obese, you increase the workload on the heart and blood vessels. Losing weight reduces the strain on your heart and the wear and tear on your body.

Get physically active, with your health care provider's approval. Being inactive can raise your risk. Inactivity is just as dangerous as smoking, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Increasing physical activity increases the levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol in your body, helping prevent disease of your arteries.

Control diabetes. If you have diabetes, keep control of your blood sugar level. About two-thirds of people with diabetes die from cardiovascular disease, not diabetes. High blood sugar is damaging to blood vessels anywhere in the body. Ongoing high blood sugar scars the vessels and can cause heart attacks, strokes, and narrowing of arteries to major muscles and organs such as the heart and brain.

Limit alcohol use and manage stress.

You can tackle several risk factors at once by doing just three things: eating healthier foods, exercising, and taking your medicines as directed.

Diet and health

Consider these foods, which are high in nutrition:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables. Vegetables such as spinach contain vitamins C and K and folate. These nutrients may lower your risk for heart disease and some cancers.
  • Beans and other legumes. They're high in protein and a good source of fiber. All are good for your heart, help control cholesterol, and keep blood sugar levels from going too high or too low.
  • Blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. They contain antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins.
  • Pomegranates. Pomegranate juice may help lower high cholesterol in people with diabetes.
  • Walnuts. These nuts are high in fat, but it's not the saturated kind, and they contain omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts may help reduce cholesterol.
  • Flax seeds. Also high in unsaturated fat, these are another good source of alpha-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid that may reduce cardiovascular risk.

If you have allergies, or dislike these high-nutrient foods, talk with a dietitian about food options that can help you stay heart healthy and get the nutritional benefits your body needs.

Power of exercise

Exercise can cut your risk for heart disease by helping you lose weight and control your blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol levels. Exercise for at least 30 to 40 minutes, four to five days a week. To get the benefits for your heart and body, choose a type of exercise that is of moderate to vigorous intensity. Brisk walking, running, swimming, and cycling are all great activities. Talk with your health care provider before starting to exercise, especially if you already have heart disease.

Feeling unmotivated? Keep this in mind: If you weigh 200 pounds, you could lose 14 pounds in a year by eating wisely and adding a brisk one-and-a-half-mile walk to your daily routine. Not very athletic? Pick an activity that doesn't require new skills. Hate exercising alone? Ask a friend to join you.

Take your medicine

Following a healthier lifestyle may be enough to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, or even diabetes in check. If it isn't doing the trick, your health care provider may recommend prescription medicines.

Read the label on your medicine, along with any information provided about your prescription. If you're taking more than one medicine, consider filling all your prescriptions at the same pharmacy; this may help prevent possibly dangerous interactions. Let your health care provider know about any side effects. Never stop taking medicine on your own.

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