Today, the number one killer of both men and women over the age of 25 in this country is heart disease. Working Americans lead busy lives and, therefore, many fail to follow through on healthy lifestyle habits.
Sadly, 50 percent of Americans die of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, congenital heart disease or other related conditions.
On the positive side, heart disease is preventable. But medical experts say that the biggest mistake people make is not taking a proactive approach to heart health.
Inside Business asked cardiovascular experts what steps to take now to get on the path to better heart health.
1. Donâ€™t Smoke or Be Around Those That Do. More than 20 percent of Americans smoke and 126 million nonsmokers across the nation are exposed to secondhand smoke. In June, the Surgeon Generalâ€™s report provided irrefutable scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is a major risk factor for heart disease in this country.
Smoking is an addiction and many patients often find it hard to quit, says Dr. George Littman, chief of cardiology at Akron General Medical Center. â€œI recommend trying what works for you – the patch, behavior modification, hypnotism, a support group or even going â€˜cold turkey.â€™â€
2. Eat Right. Following a heart-healthy diet means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, skim or low-fat milk and avoiding foods high in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.
Dr. Leslie Cho, director of the Womenâ€™s Cardiovascular Center at The Cleveland Clinic and medical director for Preventative Cardiology, recommends a diet high in fiber, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and low in trans and saturated fats, and eating grilled or steamed foods instead of fried.
Doctors also recommend keeping alcohol intake to a minimum.
3. Exercise Daily. One of the best ways to care for your heart is to get active. Dr. Littman advocates walking rather than injury-prone exercises like running or jogging.
Those of us who work in an office have the tendency toward a sedentary lifestyle, says Mariann Pacak, a registered nurse and the director of Heart & Vascular Services at Humility of Mary Health Partners in Youngstown. â€œTake any opportunity to get active daily by taking the stairs or walking on your lunch hour.â€
4. Manage Your Weight. The best way to tell if you are overweight is to know your Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by taking your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters squared. For people under age 65, the normal BMI range is 18.5 to 24.9. You are overweight if your BMI is between 25 and 29 and you are obese if it is 30 to 34.9.
The American Heart Association Web site (www.americanheart.org) offers an easy-to-read table showing various risk levels.
5. Know Your Family History. Even if you follow a healthy lifestyle by eating right, exercising regularly and not smoking, heart disease poses a threat if it runs in your family. Discussing family medical history with your doctor can help determine if less obvious family-related risk factors such as aneurysms, hypertension, high blood pressure and clogged arteries make you a stronger candidate for coronary problems.
Dr. Barry Effron, associate chief of cardiology at University Hospitals of Cleveland, says that someone with a history of high blood pressure in the family might be treated differently than one with sky-high cholesterol. â€œDietary recommendations or attention to medications might be tailored to what risk factor is most prominent,â€ he says.
6. Know Your Cholesterol Level. Cholesterol level is an age-related phenomenon, says Akron Generalâ€™s Dr. Littman, and it becomes increasingly significant as we grow older. For most, total cholesterol should be less than 200.
More specifically, bad cholesterol readings would be at 130 or above and good cholesterol readings at 40 and above for males and 50 or above for females. The numbers change when coupled with other risk factors such as diabetes or those who already have cardiovascular disease.
7. Monitor Your Blood Pressure. Healthy blood pressure guidelines recently changed, says Dr. Littman. â€œWe usually see people as they grow older getting into more hypertension, 140 over 90 and above,â€ he says, indicating the level that usually requires medication to keep blood pressure down. Keep in mind that high blood pressure coupled with one or more risk factors greatly increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke and must be monitored regularly by your doctor.
8. Reduce Stress in Your Life. While managing stress makes sense for your overall health, the American Heart Association states there is no scientific data supporting specific recommendations about stress reduction as a proven therapy for cardiovascular disease.
Still, doctors recommend implementing stress relievers into your lifestyle as a good supplement to the heart-healthy habits already listed. Take a long walk when you get home from work, recommends Dr. Littman, or use other known stress releases such as meditation, guided imagery, reading and listening to music.
â€œAnd definitely recharge your batteries on the weekend,â€ he says.
9. Learn the Symptoms of a Heart Attack. While not as common, heart attacks can occur in someone 30 years or even younger. Most people are aware of the typical heart attack symptoms (chest or upper body pain including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach, and shortness of breath), but do not realize that atypical symptoms can also appear such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.
â€œMost people with chest pain donâ€™t describe it as â€˜pain.â€™ Itâ€™s more of a pressure, indigestion or a fullness,â€ explains Dr. Effron.
Women may have shortness of breath, rather than chest pain with pressure going down the left arm, which is what men more typically encounter. Sometimes men get atypical symptoms as well. On average, women tend to have more warning before actually having a heart attack (such as chest pain signaling the onset of heart disease), whereas more men suffer a fatal heart attack without even realizing they were at coronary risk, Dr. Effron says.
10. See Your Doctor. Finally, one of the most important things you can do is get regular physical exams from doctors. â€œGo to your general medical doctor and if you are concerned [about the health of your heart], then go to a cardiologist,â€ says The Clinic's Dr. Cho, who adds that both the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend people get their cholesterol levels checked in their 20s and continue at least every five years. Dt. Cho recommends that those over 40 get their cholesterol and blood pressure checked annually.
The biggest mistake the general population makes is thinking heart disease will happen to someone else – thereâ€™s a 50/50 chance it will happen to you. Says Dr. Cho, â€œWe need to change that mentality and become more proactive, with the mindset of preventing this disease.â€