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 our purposes here, we’ll will continue to use the term "heart disease" to summarize all these heart conditions. Luckily, the recommendations here are beneficial for all hearts, regardless of the issues you may experience.
Our PacMed top tips for getting the best heart care:
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 healthy range and goals discussed with your doctor—is the first step toward taking charge of your heart health.
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 – Diabetes greatly increases the risk of heart disease. The standard test for diabetes is an average of your blood sugar over a three-month period—known as the HbA1c.
- BMI – Your “body mass index” is a quick way to estimate if your weight is appropriate for your height. (Note, different BMI numbers may be appropriate for different body types and ethnicities. Please check with your provider about the appropriate number for you.)
- 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 the wallet card PDF, 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)|
|BMI (Body Mass Index)|
Since successful cardiovascular care depends on sharing and receiving accurate information, 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 feeling confident you have the best information before taking action is worth an extra visit to the doctor.
Recognizing that you are not alone in the fight for your heart health can help decrease your stress and worry—which, in turn, helps your heart. Involve your family or supportive friends as much as possible; they will be an invaluable resource for keeping you healthy as you avoid or deal with cardiovascular disease. Alternatively, look for services out there offering nurses for hire who can accompany you to your visits, ask appropriate questions and help you streamline your care.
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 it help bring your numbers in line and lower your risk factors—you’ll also feel better. As you get to know your body better, if you do develop heart disease, you will be able to 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!