In about the time it takes you to read this article, cardiovascular disease will have claimed four American lives. One of us dies from a heart-related condition like coronary artery disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attack, or stroke every 40 seconds.1 This disease accounts for one out of every three deaths in the U.S., more than 800,000 deaths a year.1
That’s a lot of victims, especially for a disease that’s mostly preventable. “About one-half of all Americans have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or smoke. These are key risk factors in heart disease,” explains Dr. Derek Bennetsen, DO, FAAEM, senior medical director for Teladoc Health. “Other important risk factors include diabetes, obesity, and a family history of heart disease,” he adds.
If you recognize any of these factors in your own life, you could have—or soon develop—heart disease. But it’s not too late to take steps toward a heart-healthy life. To give your heart the love it deserves, know disease warning signs and what habits you can adopt for optimal health.
The signs of silence
Heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, or CAD, develops when plaque clogs the arteries and restricts blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients to the heart. The plaque, made up of cholesterol deposits, builds up slowly over time, explains Dr. Bennetsen. “It can remain silent for years to decades, which is why heart disease is sometimes called ‘the silent killer.’”
At first, you may not notice any disease symptoms at all. But if the artery-narrowing buildup continues, sending less blood to the heart, you may eventually feel short of breath, tight in the chest, fatigued, or extra taxed during physical activity. Unfortunately, CAD symptoms can be minor enough to go unnoticed until you suffer a heart attack or stroke.
High blood pressure is another symptomless condition that threatens heart health. About 85.7 million American adults—or 34 percent of us—have high blood pressure.1 Increased pressure on the arteries and heart, over time, can lead to a weakness or failure in the cardiovascular system. But the condition isn’t obvious: A high stress level, sweating, and a flushed face are not signs of elevated blood pressure, as many people think. A healthcare professional has to diagnose this, so have your blood pressure numbers checked regularly. The good news is that treatment and lifestyle changes can help keep blood pressure under control.
Now that you know heart disease can sneak up on you, let’s look at what you can do to make sure it doesn’t. First and foremost, it’s important to avoid smoking and heavy alcohol use, which can stress your body and heart with toxins.
Next, managing weight though a healthy diet is vital for maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. Obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels put us at greater risk for heart disease. And while there may be a genetic component to these conditions, you can reduce your disease risk by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, Dr. Bennetsen says.
Start by cutting down on saturated and trans fats in fried, buttery, and processed foods, including cakes and cookies. Also avoid sodium-rich foods and sugary drinks. Instead, focus on eating meals and snacks that are full of vitamins, minerals, and fibers, such as vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, nuts, and whole grains. These sensible food choices will keep you fuller longer and improve your heart function.
Moving your body
About 65 percent of us are obese or overweight, which increases our risk of heart disease.2 If you are in this group and are physically inactive, you also have a greater chance of having high cholesterol, which can speed up the process of narrowing of the arteries. Carrying around extra weight also puts extra stress on your heart and circulatory system, which can lead to serious health conditions.3
By burning calories through exercise, you can realize a number of cardiovascular benefits including:2
- maintaining a healthy weight
- improving circulation
- improving cholesterol levels
- managing blood pressure and
- reducing coronary heart disease
In addition to all these heart-friendly benefits, exercise prevents bone loss, improves sleep, boosts energy levels, and helps manage stress.2
Controlling the variables
Some things in life can’t be helped: Certain risk factors for cardiovascular disease relating to family or personal history, race, gender, and age aren’t changeable. In many of these cases—and in other situations—medications can help. But for the most part, patients should understand that heart health is within their control.
“It starts with behavior modification, self-discipline, and a strong relationship with your personal physician who can guide you through activities such as smoking cessation, initiating an exercise routine, following a heart-healthy diet, and reducing life stressors,” Dr. Bennetsen says.
If your heart could use a little love this month, our extensive network of U.S. board-certified physicians is available on-demand, 24/7. If you’ve already been diagnosed with heart disease, we can refill medications and suggest lifestyle changes to improve your condition. Sign in now to request a visit.
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