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Love Your Heart

Today’s Choices Prevent Future Threats

Guess what? You’re never too young—or too old—to take care of your heart. Preventing heart disease, and all cardiovascular diseases, is easy when you make smart decisions now that will pay great dividends the rest of your life.

Lack of exercise, a poor diet, and other unhealthy habits can take quite a toll over the years. urges those concerned with heart health to consider the following steps—at any age—to ensure a lifetime of good health.

Your Diet is Key

Don’t Overeat

As you probably know already, being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease. Studies show that 72% of men and 64% of women in the United States are overweight or obese.

Dr. Harmony R. Reynolds, MD, associate director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center, and Judith S. Hochman, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center, both of NYU’s Langone Medical Center, say we should all try to eat less, avoid oversized portions, and replace sugary drinks with water. The duo also suggest cutting portion sizes for high-calorie carbohydrates, such as refined pastas and breads, and watching out for foods labeled “low-fat,” which are often high in calories and sodium.

Limit Red Meat

Most doctors will tell you it’s best to think of red meat as an occasional treat rather than the foundation of a daily diet. Red meat is high in saturated fat, and there’s also evidence that processed meat, such as bacon and hot dogs, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Robert Ostfeld, MD, cardiologist and director of preventive cardiology at Montefiore Health System, advises that less than 10% of your diet come from animals and animal products.

If you don’t think you can part with beef, choose a lean cut of red meat and limit your intake. “People have to know that if you want a steak a few times a month, it’s okay,” Dr. Hochman says. “It’s what you’re eating three times a day that’s the issue. Be in it for the long haul. Eat a balanced diet.”

Add Fruits and Vegetables

“The most heart-healthy diet is a plant-based diet,” Dr. Ostfeld says. That means loading up on fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and protein, and keeping junk food to a minimum. Interestingly, new federal dietary guidelines recommend that half of each meal should be composed of fruits and vegetables.

Other research discovered those who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 20% lower risk of heart disease and stroke than those who ate less than three servings per day.

Don’t be a Salty Snacker

The more salt you consume, the higher your blood pressure rises. One in three adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure—a major risk factor for stroke, kidney failure, and heart attack.

“Steer clear of packaged junk food, read the labels for sodium content, and stick to the outer portions of the supermarket, which is where the fruits, vegetables, and (unsalted) nuts are,” Dr. Ostfeld says.

Most adults should keep sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams a day. If you already have high blood pressure, or are over 50, cut that number back to 1,500 milligrams.

Avoid Empty Calories

Foods high in sugar, fat, and oil deliver calories, but very few, if any, nutrients your body can use. Study after study has shown that a diet full of empty calories increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.

While shopping, look for foods dense in nutrients, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Lean meats and poultry, along with fat-free and low-fat milk, are good choices as well.

Ditch the Bad Habits

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

We’ve all heard the studies that say a small amount of alcohol is be good for your heart, but, unfortunately, too many of us over-imbibe. Excess alcohol is linked to a greater risk of high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, and heart failure. In addition, the extra calories can lead to weight gain—a threat to heart health.

If you drink, stick to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one a day for women. (One drink means a 12-ounce beer or 4-ounce glass of wine).

Quit Smoking

It bears repeating: Don’t smoke!

“Smoking is a total disaster for your heart,” says Dr. Ostfeld. Smoking can cause blood clots, which can block blood flow to the heart, and contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries.

It’s hard to believe, but approximately 46,000 non-smokers who live with a smoker die from heart disease each year Dr. Ostfeld says secondhand smoke is a “smart bomb” aimed at everyone around you.

Limit Time in Front of the TV

Sitting for hours on end increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, even if you exercise regularly.

“Intermittent exercise doesn’t compensate for the time you sit,” says Dr. Reynolds. Why? The lack of movement may affect blood levels of fats and sugars. She advises walking around periodically and, if you’re at work, standing up to talk on the phone.

Don’t Forget to Floss

While the exact reason is unknown, a strong link between gum disease and heart disease exists. If you don’t floss, sticky, bacteria-laden plaque builds up over time and this can lead to gum disease. One theory is that these bacteria trigger inflammation in the body.

“Inflammation promotes all aspects of atherosclerosis,” explains Dr. Ostfeld. Treating gum disease can often improve blood vessel function.

Don’t Skip or Quit Medication

Yes, remembering to take pills each day can be a pain. And some of those pills can cause less than pleasant side effects. Whatever your excuse may be, it’s not good enough to ignore the importance of your prescribed medication.

“High blood pressure is called the silent killer because you don’t feel it,” warns Dr. Ostfeld. “Saying you feel fine is not a justification for stopping these pills.”
With 30 types of high blood pressure medication, you have plenty of options if one isn’t working, Dr. Hochman says. “If one medication doesn’t work, try something else.”

Mental Health Plays a Role

Don’t Withdraw from the World

Some days simply interacting with other human beings can seem annoying, irritating, and just plain difficult. However, it makes sense to strengthen your connections to those you actually like! Those with stronger connections to family, friends, and society in general tend to live longer, healthier lives.

We each need alone time, but we should still reach out to others and keep in touch with the people important to us.

Don’t Ignore Hostility and Depression

Do you feel stressed, hostile, or depressed? Such emotions can take a toll on your heart. While each of us may feel this way some of the time how we handle these emotions can affect heart health.

“Those likely to internalize stress are in greater danger; research has shown a benefit to laughter and social support,” Dr. Reynolds says. “And it’s helpful to be able to go to someone and talk about your problems.”

Pay Attention to Lifestyle

Can’t Ignore the Snoring

More than a minor annoyance, snoring can be a sign of something more serious: Obstructive sleep apnea. This disorder, marked by breathing that is interrupted during sleep, can cause blood pressure to skyrocket.

More than 18 million adults in the U.S. have sleep apnea, which increases the risk of heart disease. Those who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for sleep apnea, but those with a slim figure can have it too.

If you snore and often wake up feeling tired talk with your doctor so that he or she can screen for apnea, suggests Dr. Ostfeld.

Find Moderation

Some call it the “weekend warrior syndrome.” Dr. Hochman explains: “I see so many people in their 40s and 50s dive into exercising with good intentions, hurt themselves, and then stop exercising all together.”

With exercise, she says it’s wise to aim for slow and steady. “It’s more important to have a regular exercise commitment. Be in it for the long haul.”

Know Your Numbers

Check in with your doctor on a regular basis so that you know your numbers for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. If these are elevated, you’re at risk for silent killers like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The lifetime risk of developing hypertension, or high blood pressure, for adults in their mid-50s is approximately 90%, even with those who never had a problem before. “The general point is that just because you didn’t have it at 24 doesn’t mean you don’t have it at 54,’ warns Dr. Ostfeld.

Listen to Your Body

If you used to walk up three flights of stairs without a problem, but suddenly you’re short of breath after one flight or have chest pressure, it’s time to call your doctor immediately. Never assume the problem you’re having is just because you’re out of shape.

Doctors often say “time is muscle,” meaning the quicker you get treatment for possible trouble, the less likely you are to have permanent damage to your heart muscle. “It’s better for it to be much ado about nothing than sitting on a heart attack for six hours,” which is not uncommon, Dr. Ostfeld says.

Never Downplay Your Risk

Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart disease, and heart failure, claims more lives in the United States than any other illness—including cancer. “Don’t assume you’re not at risk,” cautions Dr. Ostfeld.

High blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, and smoking are all risk factors that should be kept in check.

For more information on keeping your heart healthy or to schedule an appointment to discuss any heart concerns you may have, contact the caring providers of CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists at 252-63-HEART (634-3278).

(Sources: Time Magazine;; American Heart Association; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic;; and Heart Health Foundation.)