Heart disease is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States. Still, leading a healthy lifestyle can help control many of the risk factors for heart disease.
Interventional cardiologist Joseph McGarvey, Jr., MD has seen firsthand the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle on patients' arteries.
The Basics About Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease occurs when plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries, which supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. Over the years plaque can harden and narrow the artieries, or break open (rupture) and lead to heart attack. There are several known risk factors for coronary heart disease and heart attack, some of which you can control and some you can't.
What Risk Factors Can't Be Changed?
The risk factors you cannot control include your age, gender and family history. In general, women develop heart disease about 10 years later than men, says Dr. McGarvey.
What Risk Factors Can Be Changed, Treated or Controlled?
The following risk factors are controlled by you:
- Being overweight or obese
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Managing diabetes and prediabetes
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
Start Young and Make It a Habit
"People should be concerned at a young age about their cardiac risk factors," says Dr. McGarvey.
He points to the childhood obesity epidemic as one reason parents should be helping their children control their risk factors for heart and other types of disease. Many lifestyle habits begin during childhood, so parents really can have an impact on whether their children make "heart-healthy" choices.
"Parents can encourage children to exercise, have a healthy diet, use portion control and watch their weight," Dr. McGarvey says.
"We see so many young people with heart attacks, some in their 30s," says Dr. McGarvey. These can be due to a combination of risk factors. Clearly, it's not just older adults that need to be mindful of controlling risk.
Knowing Is Half the Battle
You may have heard of the recommendation to "know your numbers" when it comes to heart health. These indicators are all important risk factors to be aware of and to control.
- Blood pressure
- Cholesterol (total/LDL/HDL)
- Blood glucose
- Weight and BMI (body mass index)
"The more information people have about their bodies, the better they'll be able to control their risk," says Dr. McGarvey. Since some risk factors, like high cholesterol, might not cause symptoms, it is especially important to keep track of this information.
If you haven't had these numbers checked out lately, it's best to make an appointment with your primary care physician. If problems are identified, you might be advised to see a cardiologist.
Take Away the Roadblocks – in Your Head
Resistance to changes in lifestyle comes from a strong source – yourself. Many people simply don't want to stop smoking or exercise regularly, even though they know they should. "Or they don't want to take medications they should be on," says Dr. McGarvey.
A lot of it comes down to common sense and common sense eating, he adds. If you need help with making positive lifestyle changes, Dr. McGarvey suggests talking to your doctor, trying cardiac rehab or enlisting the services of a dietitian. There is a ton of information online. The American Heart Association is a reliable resource and a good place to start.
Why Managing Risk Factors Matters
On average, people at low risk of coronary heart disease live almost 10 years longer than people at high risk. Even if you already have heart disease, making lifestyle changes can help you control your risk factors. Positive changes might prevent heart disease from getting worse. Even for people in their seventies or eighties, adopting a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of dying from coronary heart disease.
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