Keeping the beat

Could you be putting your heart in danger?

By Barbara Pierce

You don’t have to be a fitness freak or a health nut to dramatically slash your risk of heart attack or stroke. You just need to stop a few things that elevate your risk of heart disease, says Dr. Cynthia Jones of Utica, board member of the Greater Utica American Heart Association.

“In times of a pandemic when there’s so much that’s stressful, it’s best to look at the American Heart Association’s ‘Life’s Simple 7,’” she said. “These are seven factors that increase your risk for a heart attack.”

— Manage your blood pressure. It’s important to take your medication as prescribed and to maintain a low sodium diet. It’s also important to keep appointments with your primary care provider so that medication adjustments can be made, if necessary, to help you maintain a healthy blood pressure of lower than 120/80.

— Control your cholesterol: During the pandemic, when it can be challenging to eat healthy, it’s important to make healthy choices, whether you’re eating out or cooking at home. Reduce saturated fats (found primarily in red meat and dairy products), eliminate trans fats (also known as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”) used in margarine, cookies, crackers and cakes.

If you’re on cholesterol-lowering medication, continue to take it and keep up with appointments to have it checked. Cholesterol medication decreases the cholesterol buildup in arteries that can cause a heart attack.

— Control your blood sugar: See your primary care physician annually to ensure that you don’t have pre-diabetes or diabetes, which increases your risk of stroke and heart attack.

— Get active: Inactivity can lead to obesity, which increases your risk of heart disease. And muscle loss as you age is a serious problem, and your heart is the most important muscle of all.

Although we’re in a pandemic, it’s still important to move—inside or outside the house. It’s simple, just move, get your heart pumping, dance for 30-60 minutes. It’s safe to go outside, socially distanced, and ride your Aventon bike or take a walk.

Walking and biking outside can decrease stress which is also a risk factor for heart attack, while decreasing weight gain.

Eat better: A low fat, low salt, and low carbohydrate diet definitely leads to a healthy heart. During the pandemic, many are cooking at home more, which is a great time to experiment with heart healthy recipes.

Foods that come in boxes and bags are more likely to make you fat and unhealthy than foods you cook yourself.

A healthy eating pattern emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes.

A lot of foods seem healthy but are low in nutritional value. Some culprits: granola bars and smoothies loaded with added sugars.

Limit the sugary snacks. For snacks, stir fresh berries into a cup of plain yogurt (instead of eating that sugary “fruit” on the bottom), or scoop hummus with some carrots and celery, rather than processed chips.

Try to eat a serving of fruits and vegetables with every meal (including breakfast). Fry some thinly sliced brussels sprouts with your eggs, have a healthy salad or vegetable soup for lunch, make sure there’s a side of broccoli with your salmon.

Lose weight: Obesity is one of the deadliest diseases that we face in the U.S. It can be hard to change to a healthy way of eating.  It’s important to adopt a lifestyle change, rather than trying to diet to lose the weight.

One of the biggest health issues, especially if you’re over 50, is weight creep— gaining a pound or two every year until you tip over into obesity. Meaningful weight loss comes mostly from better eating patterns, rather than from more exercise.

The key to loosing weight is to eat the right foods.

Stop smoking:  Smoking alone increases your risk of heart attack, but, when added to high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, the risk increases significantly. It’s important to talk to your primary care provider about the best way for you to quit smoking. Even small doses of nicotine are not safe. There is no threshold below which you’re okay with smoking. That doesn’t exist.

By stopping, not only will you decrease your risk of heart attack, but you also decrease your risk of lung disease.

The above are all risk factors that put your heart in danger.

“Although it may not be possible to change all of these habits at one time, it’s more important to choose one and get started,” concludes Jones.

“Every step you take to improve even of one of these areas can lead to a significant decrease in your risk of heart attack.”