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What You Need to Know About Heart Disease

By Claire Kowalchik
May 20, 2015

The most important thing you need to know about heart disease is this: Your heart health is in your hands. This disease, which takes more lives—both women’s and men’s ---than any other health malady can be prevented, and key risk factors for heart attack or stroke can be controlled. Learn what those risk factors are and the lifestyle steps needed to manage them, and then take charge of your health. Your heart will love you for it.

Know Your Family History
Has anyone in your family had a heart attack or stroke? What about high blood pressure or high cholesterol? A family history of heart disease puts you at a much greater risk. Make a point to find out about the heart health of your mom and dad, brothers and sisters and grandparents. For anyone who has high blood pressure or high cholesterol or suffered a heart attack or stroke, try to find out at what age those symptoms or events occurred and what may have led to them. This is important information to share with your physician so that the two of you can be proactive about preventing heart disease if your risk is high.

Know Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure that’s left untreated can damage your blood vessels and your heart. The American Heart Association defines high blood pressure as 140/90 or above. Generally, there are no obvious symptoms of high blood pressure, which is why it’s important to get it checked regularly and why nurses check it every time you have a doctor’s appointment.

If yours is up above where it should be, you can lower it through weight loss, exercise, and a diet that balances sodium reduction with an emphasis on potassium-rich fruits and vegetables. The Jenny Craig menus emphasize fruits and vegetables, especially non-starchy vegetables.

Know Your Cholesterol
Your body makes and uses cholesterol, but too much of it can build up on the walls of your blood vessels raising blood pressure and clogging arteries. Cholesterol travels through your body as LDL (aka bad cholesterol) and HDL (aka good cholesterol). You want high levels of HDL, which clears cholesterol from your bloodstream, and low levels of LDL. The American Heart Association recommends that you have a cholesterol test beginning at age 20 and then every 4 to 6 years thereafter. The test will measure your total blood cholesterol, LDLs, HDLs, and blood triglycerides (the most common form of fat in the body).

A total cholesterol under 200 is good. If yours starts creeping up beyond that, your physician will first recommend lifestyle changes: increasing physical activity, which can help raise your HDLs, and making adjustments to your diet including the following:

●Eat more fiber—particularly soluble fiber, the kind found in oats and oat products
●Cut back on saturated fats from red meat and dairy products, which raise cholesterol
●Eliminate trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils common in packaged baked goods), which lower HDLs and raise LDLs
●Consume more foods that contain monounsaturated fats—nuts, avocado, olive and canola oil—which can boost good cholesterol.

For some, particularly those who are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol, diet and exercise may not help, and your doctor may recommend medication depending on other risk factors.

Know Your Lifestyle Risks
Being overweight, stress, lack of physical activity, smoking, and excess alcohol consumption increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. Clearly, the more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. What also should be apparent is that these are things you can change. Losing weight, quitting smoking, and finding time to exercise take motivation, but they are doable, especially with support. Make them a priority.

Live a heart-smart life—for your own benefit and for the benefit of those you love.

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