Get Centered on Heart Health

Heart disease remains the number-one killer in the United States for many reasons, but the knowledge is available to empower you to take responsibility for your heart—and get back to everything riding on your health.

First, a few terms to clear up: as a society, when we say "heart disease," people most often think of coronary artery disease (CAD), or atherosclerosis/blockages of the arteries to the heart. In reality, however, there are many different heart problems, which, if recognized, are easy to treat. These include irregular heart rhythms or arrhythmia (electrical), heart valve problems (mechanical) and CAD (plumbing).

The heart can be envisioned as an engine with many integrated systems that all need to work well for it to keep humming. For the purposes of this article, we’ll will continue to use the term "heart disease" but the recommendations here are beneficial for all hearts, regardless of the issues you may experience.

Our PacMed top recommendations for taking charge of your heart health include:

Know your numbers

Over the years, as researchers have looked at ways to prevent and treat heart disease, the best treatments identified have revolved around attending to the risk factors for heart disease. "Your numbers" are measurements of these key risk factors.

Knowing where your numbers are, compared to your goals, is the first step toward empowering you around heart health. (Goals may be different for each patient.)

There are six numbers you need to know:

  • LDL – The bad cholesterol that contributes to coronary artery disease.
  • HDL – Good cholesterol, which is a problem if low—but higher levels may not be as protective as once thought.
  • Blood pressure – This is the force continually placed on your blood vessels, which if high can cause damage.
  • Diabetes/HbA1c – The new standard in diagnosing and monitoring diabetes is the HbA1c, which can show an average of your blood sugars over a three-month period. Diabetes greatly increases the risk of heart disease.
  • BMI – Your body mass index is a shorthand name for estimating if your weight is appropriate for your height.
  • Smoking status – Your smoking status is not so much a number as simply a risk factor. Smokers have a dramatically increased risk of heart disease.

By addressing each of these issues, you will dramatically reduce your chance of developing heart disease. If it helps, print/cut out the following card, write in the numbers you know and ask your physician about the rest. Carry it in your wallet to update it and track your progress.

  Risk Factor   My Number   My Goal
  LDL (Bad Cholesterol)    
  HDL (Good Cholesterol)    
  Blood Pressure    
  BMI (Body Mass Index)    
  Smoking     Non-smoker

Find a communicative doctor

Since successful cardiovascular care depends on good communication, find yourself a cardiologist who not only will answer your questions but also will explain your diagnosis, test results and treatment options. The more you understand, the less stressful the process will be. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Information is power, and getting a second viewpoint can help you make the right decisions.

Build a team

Recognizing that you are not alone in the fight for your heart health can help decrease your stress and worry. Involve your family or supportive friends as much as possible; they will be an invaluable resource to keeping you healthy as you avoid or deal with cardiovascular disease. Alternatively, look for services out there offering nurses for hire to accompany you to your visits, ask appropriate questions and help you streamline your care.

Take care of your body

Finally, recognize that your heart is an engine, working inside of a bigger machine. Treat your body well by eating well and exercising. Not only will this help you bring your numbers in line, you also will get to know your body better so that if you do develop heart disease, you will pick up on it much earlier.

The newest exercise guidelines, updated in late 2018, recommend adults getting 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity each week, with muscle strengthening activities on two days per week. Youth need 60 minutes per day. Choose something you enjoy—that increases the likelihood that you will stick with it. (It’s wise if you have concerns to consult with your primary care physician before starting a new exercise program.)

For nutrition, focus on the basics: a diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; lean proteins; and low-fat dairy. Drink lots of water, but keep an eye on your salt and sugar intake.

Overall, take the time to educate yourself about your heart health and take it on as a central part of your life. A lot is riding on you keeping going!