The month of February exemplifies matters of the heart. While love might be the first to come to mind, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have dubbed February as American Heart Month. The CDC is dedicating the entire month to education and prevention of the No. one leading cause of death in America: heart disease. Its Million Hearts initiative aims to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. before 2016.

According to the CDC, one in every three deaths is caused by heart disease and stroke, an estimated 2,200 deaths per day.

“There are one to 1.2 million heart attacks each year in America,” says Dr. Wayne N. Leimbach, Jr., medical director for the Oklahoma Heart Institute. “About a third of those people die, and most of the deaths occur before the patient arrives at a hospital.”

The diagnosis is even worse for Oklahoma. Our 2011 State of the State Health Report showed 27 percent more Oklahomans die of heart disease than the national average, the second highest in the nation.

“Oklahoma (has) one of the highest levels of risk factors, such as obesity, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol and hypertension, creating the perfect storm for high prevalence of heart disease,” says Dr. Jose Exaire, medical director for OU Physicians Heart and Lung Clinic. “Unhealthy lifestyle, such as sedentary behavior, adds to the risk. And, the prevalence of (these) risk factors continue to increase in the country, especially in Oklahoma.”

“Oklahoma (has) one of the highest levels of risk factors, such as obesity, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol and hypertension, creating the perfect storm for high prevalence of heart disease.”

There is good news to these scary statistics. For most people, this killer is preventable, assures the physicians.

“Most of the risk factors (for heart disease) are modifiable,” explains Exaire.

While age, gender and your heritage impact your risk for heart disease, obesity, smoking, diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension greatly increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These conditions are often caused by or made worse by poor diet and lack of exercise.

“Unhealthy lifestyle is a major factor to heart disease,” confirms Leimbach. “Americans eat significant quantities of unhealthy foods, exercise too little, and too many Americans continue to smoke.”

You do have the power to decrease your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

“Maintaining good heart health (is) the easiest and most cost-effective tool that we have to lower the incidence of heart disease,” says Exaire.

Simply put, you only have one heart, and you need to take care of it, encourages Leimbach.

Don’t wait. The earlier you start taking charge of your heart health, the better.

“The earlier in life a person starts prevention, the greater the reduction in risk a person will experience,” shares Leimbach.

So how does one get started? Here are five important steps to better heart health, which will dramatically reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Step One:

Visit with your doctor about your heart’s current status. “The most important thing a person can do is to be screened for the major heart risk factors, and then aggressively treat those risk factors,” says Leimbach.

Talk with your doctor about family history, blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels, blood sugar, activity and whether or not you smoke. Once you understand your at-risk areas, you can appropriately tackle your heart health.

“Follow the recommendations of your health professionals,” stresses Exaire.

Step Two:

Exercise daily. Your heart is a muscle, just like any other muscle in your body. Exercise is important in keeping it strong and in good working order. Physical activity also helps control blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, as well as help lower blood pressure for some. Don’t be overwhelmed or feel pressured to buy pricey equipment. Start small and simple.  

“Walk a minimum of 10 continuous minutes a day,” recommends Leimbach.

Then, work your way up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise three to five times a week, advises Leimbach. All exercise is beneficial, but more strenuous activities provide greater health benefits.

Step Three:

Eat a healthy diet low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugars. Heart disease in its simplest definition consists of blockages in the arteries that feed blood to the heart muscle. These blockages are a result of atherosclerosis, which is a silent buildup of plaque, explains Exaire.

“The blockages inhibit the heart from effectively pumping adequate amounts of blood to meet the body’s needs,” says Leimbach.

What you eat and how much matters. Sticking to a healthy diet is the best way to manage cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and weight; all will directly reduce the risk of developing blockages.

“In general, a normal diet should be around 1,800 calories for women and 2,000 calories for men,” outlines Exaire.

“If your cholesterol is a concern, focus on a diet low in cholesterol and saturated and trans fats,” shares Leimbach. “Manage high blood pressure by limiting sodium intake.”

“People with diabetes or pre-diabetes need to aggressively control blood sugar levels,” adds Leimbach.

An easy way to get started on the path to a healthier diet is to simply eat more fruits and vegetables, encourages Exaire.

Step Four:

Keep a healthy weight. Excess weight increases the heart’s work as well as raises other risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Obesity can also make diabetes more likely to develop. The American Heart Association says losing even 10 pounds can improve the heart’s health.

“There are great internet resources to calculate body mass index to see if you have a healthy weight,” offers Exaire.

Step Five:

Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit. A smoker’s risk of developing heart disease is two to four times higher than that of a nonsmoker, according to the American Heart Association. Also, cigarette smoking increases the risk of sudden cardiac death in people that already have heart disease.

“People make plaque blockages in the arteries of the heart at different rates; however, the plaque buildup is accelerated in individuals who smoke,” warns Leimbach.

Remember that you have the power to ensure your heart beats for many more years to come.

“If you want to decrease your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, you should follow a healthy diet, exercise, quit smoking, go to your doctor to be evaluated for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol,” reminds Exaire. “And, most importantly, be compliant with the recommendations of your health professionals.”

Heart Health and
the Sleep Paradox

Logic might appear to dictate that the more sleep one gets, the healthier the body will be and thus the healthier the heart will be, reducing the possibility of a heart attack.

However, data suggests that those who get too little sleep and those who sleep longer than average are both at increased risk of heart disease and thus heart attacks. A 2011 European Heart Journal review of 15 medical studies found that short sleepers (on average less than six hours sleep nightly) and long sleepers (on average nine or more hours nightly) had increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease in subsequent years, by 48 percent and 38 percent, respectively. The same study showed both type of sleepers also had dramatically higher chances of stroke.

Scientists have yet to be able to fully explain the dynamic in part because the cardiac effects of sleep are not entirely understood. – Michael W. Sasser

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