Every 34 seconds an American dies from a heart attack, and every minute someone in our country dies from a heart-related event. -American Heart Assocation
The path to a healthy heart begins today. It is never too early or too late to change your life and make better decisions to increase the health of your heart.We all know what we are supposed to do, but often we’re not sure where to begin. “It is so important to pay attention to the health of one’s heart because cardiovascular disease is one of only a few disease processes that we know can be prevented,” says Mindy Gentry, MD, a cardiologist at WellStar Cardiovascular Medicine. “Many other diseases concentrate on early detection but not necessarily prevention. Heart disease can be prevented in many cases, so it is key to know how to do it.”
Back to Basics
Arm yourself with knowledge. Having an understanding of the risks you face if you don’t get healthy is the first step towards gaining perspective on your heart’s health. The statistics released by the American Heart Association are shocking. Every 34 seconds an American dies from a heart attack, and every minute someone in our country dies from a heart-related event. “What’s important to understand about heart disease is that the risk factors may go unnoticed for a long period of time,” says Sara Mobasseri, MD, FACC of Piedmont Heart Institute. “No one feels high cholesterol, or in some cases high blood pressure and blood sugars, until they start having chest pain or their first heart attack.”
It’s not enough to know about your cholesterol levels, you should also understand how they relate to your health. Recall, for example, triglycerides, LDL and HDL – we all vaguely remember these mentioned in high school health class. To recap, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol while high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol. The higher your HDL levels are, the lower your risk of heart disease. Triglycerides are fat particle that is associated with high levels of lipids – fats – that come from animal and vegetable fats and are stored within the body. A high level of triglycerides can lead to heart disease, obesity and pancreatitis.
Gentry stresses the importance of people knowing their health numbers – blood pressure, total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, triglyceride levels and body mass index. “People should talk to their doctors about these numbers and about other things that put them at risk for heart disease, including a history of smoking (and) family history of coronary artery disease,” she says. Gentry also explains that there are new tests available for your peace of mind. “They can identify certain genes that put one at risk of early myocardial infarction and others that test for response to certain drugs."
Doctors emphasize the importance of paying attention to your diet and knowing how it can help or hurt the condition of your heart. The American Heart Association’s heart healthy dietary recommendations include 4-5 cups of fruits and vegetables daily, two 3.5-ounce servings of fish weekly and 3 servings of whole grains daily, as well as 4 servings of nuts/seeds/legumes each week. Reduction in sodium, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats are recommended, as is no more than 7 percent of total energy intake from saturated fats.
This may be difficult to follow if you have dietary restrictions or are allergic to some foods. For example, if you follow a vegetarian diet, you need to be sure it is low in fat and with more complex carbohydrates, Mobasseri explains. You should also be sure to include plenty of plant sterols, soy protein, fiber and the omega-3 (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fatty fish and plant sources like flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil and nuts.
“As cardiologists, we generally recommend more of the Mediterranean diet,” Mobasseri says. “Through many research trials, this diet has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease. It is typically high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds and includes olive oil as an important source of fat. Fish, poultry and dairy products are eaten in limited amounts, and there is little to no red meat.”
Whatever diet you choose, it is stressed that a reduction in sodium intake is a must to keep your heart at optimal health. The AHA recently issued a call to action to reduce Americans' daily intake of salt after findings indicated that we consume more than twice the amount recommended, which is 1500mg. The AHA has also created an online tool to help you evaluate your salt intake.
Many doctors have reported that the consumption of dark chocolate and red wine are good for your heart and can lower certain risk levels. But just how straightforward are these findings? The issue tends to be a controversial one due to conflicting facts.
Gregory B. Ang, MD, FACC, cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Glenlake Medical Center, finds the idea of eating chocolate in an attempt to improve one’s health a bit unrealistic since it contains a high amount of fat and calories. “Some scientists believe that eating dark chocolate can lower blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes. These benefits are linked to chemicals in dark chocolate called flavonoids, which may improve blood circulation. Unfortunately, you cannot tell how much flavonoid content is in chocolate by its color,” Ang warns.
What about alcohol? The findings seem to be a little more positive than those presented from chocolate consumption but don’t look to it as the cure-all for your heart.
“Multiple research studies have shown that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol had a decreased risk of heart attack and strokes,” says Saravanan Kuppuswamy, MD, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Gwinnett Medical Center. “Those effects are thought to be secondary to other health benefits, such as improving good cholesterol, thinning blood and the antioxidant properties of alcohol.”
Kuppuswamy warns that although these findings are based on certain research, there are numerous factors that could confound the results.
Paying the Price
Estimated to have cost the United States $316.4 billion in 2010, the bandwagon for preventive care needs to grow. This high cost comes from healthcare services, medications and lost productivity.
Mobasseri says society tends to not pay attention to how significant obesity, elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels can impact the health of your heart, leaving them in the dark about these harmful effects until it is too late. But what concerns Mobasseri the most is the lack of basic prevention needed for basic cardiac health and health care reform.
For example, if a cardiologist orders a certain type of CAT scan called a calcium score, insurance does not cover it. The out of pocket expense for the patient is roughly $100-150. Yet if a patient has a heart attack, then a heart catheterization and an extended stay at the hospital can amount to thousands of dollars. “We are not allocating our resources in the right places, and our efforts in education and prevention should not just be for our patients, but also the legislature,” Dr. Mobasseri says.
In a nutshell: Take care of yourself. Pay attention to the foods you eat, the amount of exercise you get and have your health levels checked. Being and staying healthy is a much less expensive route than medications and treatments.
Exercising is one of the best ways to keep your heart healthy. Start by taking the time to do little things during the day, even if you are at work. Personal training company D.R.E.A.M. 1122 offers the following tips:
1. Take the stairs. If you are only going up a few floors, try avoiding the elevator and get your heart pumping instead.
2. Make your lunch. When we pack our lunch, we have greater control over eating a nutritionally balanced meal.
3. Go walking. Split the lunch hour by taking 15-30 minutes for a power walk outside. It will awaken your senses, and the aerobic movement will strengthen your heart.
Tammy Stokes, author of Live Your Healthiest Life and creator of West Coast Workouts, believes, “Exercise combined with a healthy lifestyle dramatically reduces your susceptibility to heart disease. Active people are far less likely to develop coronary heart disease, independent of any other factor. Aerobic exercise multiplies the benefits of a good diet and strengthens the coronary arteries. If you choose (an) exercise that you love, it will bring you joy and stress relief which translates into a healthier heart.”
In addition to a good workout, Stokes offers up her Top 10 Super Foods that support heart health:
- Cold-water fish
- Pomegranate juice
- Green tea
- Olive oil
“There is emerging evidence that limited quantities of dark chocolate can be beneficial in lowering blood pressure and inflammatory markers that are risk factors for the development of coronary artery disease and heart failure,” says Jason Reingold, MD, a cardiologist specializing in preventative and general cardiology, advanced cardiac imaging and cardiovascular clinical research and a fellow at Saint Joseph’s Heart and Vascular Institute. “However, it is very important to understand that there is a precise amount of cocoa content and total chocolate ingested in these trials. Too low a cocoa content or too much chocolate can cancel any positive effects and may even lead to excess calories and weight gain.”
Raise Your Glass
“All types of alcohol in moderation have been associated with improvement in risk factors associated with the development of heart disease. It is true that red wine contains higher levels of antioxidants such as resveratrol, since the grape skins are fermented for longer periods of time,” he says. But Dr. Reingold is quick to add that no physician recommends drinking alcohol as part of a healthy heart regimen, as it can greatly damage the heart and the liver.
Kara Thompson, NP, Cardiology of Kaiser Permanente at Glenlake Medical Center, provides an easy-to-understand list of other heart problems we are at risk for:
• Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) - caused by cholesterol build-up in the heart, which inhibits circulation to muscles and the surrounding tissue.
• Arrhythmias - irregular heartbeats that can be brought on by heart disease, heart failure or electrical abnormalities in your heart. Some are benign and need no treatment, while others require intervention with testing and medication.
• Congestive Heart Failure - occurs when the heart does not pump well. Due to the low pumping function, the heart has difficulty providing enough blood and oxygen to the body’s organs. High blood pressure, among other conditions, can trigger congestive heart failure.
• Valvular Heart Disease - occurs when one or more of the heart’s valves do not open and close properly.
• Cardiomyopathy - is a disease that enlarges, thickens and/or stiffens the heart muscle. This causes the heart to weaken, which impacts its ability to pump blood through the body.
• Angina - often marked by a chest pain, it occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen-rich blood. This can be a symptom of coronary artery disease.
"Just like technicians look under your car to make sure things are right, would it not be good for your peace of mind to look underneath your own hood and make sure you’re alright?” suggests Jarrard.
LifeTest, a non-invasive heart and full body detection imaging company stresses the importance of getting screenings done even if you don’t feel like anything is wrong. “What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that for 32 percent of the population, the first sign of heart disease is not shortness of breath, or chest pains, it's sudden death,” Alan Jarrard, Senior Partner of LifeTest Atlanta says. “The point of checking out the heart is to check for major blockages that they’re not cognizant of that could kill them.”
At LifeTest, a heart scan is only $400. The test only takes 30 seconds and the paperwork 15 minutes, so it doesn’t take much time out of your day to get checked out. The difference between LifeTest and a regular CT scan is the significantly lesser amount of radiation produced with the LifeTest scanning machines, which are electron beam tomography scanners. Another difference is that a typical heart scan at other locations requires the patient to take a beta blocker in order to slow down the heart at a rate that the machine can capture an image. At LifeTest, there is no need for this. “We even offer free coffee because our machines are much faster and there is no need to slow the heart down,” Jarrard concludes. “In today’s world, it’s better to get checked out just so you know.”
Information provided by Lifetest Atlanta, www.LifeTestAtlanta.com
D.R.E.A.M. 1122, (678) 368-9702, www.dream1122.com
Kaiser Permanente, www.kp.org
LifeTest Atlanta Imaging Center, (770) 730-0119, www.lifetestatlanta.com
Piedmont Heart Institute, www.piedmontheart.org
Saint Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta, www.stjosephsatlanta.org
WellStar Cardiac Network, (770) 956-STAR, www.wellstar.org/heart
West Coast Workout, 175 Mt. Vernon Hwy. NE, Ste. F, Sandy Springs, GA 30328, (404) 843-3800, www.westcoastworkout.com