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Ways To A Healthier Heart: Five Major Risk Factors You Can Change

January 20, 2022
A pair of adults each creating one half of a heart sign with their hands.

February is Heart Month, and what better time to commit (or re-commit) to lifestyle changes that can make your heart a healthier one?

Since heart and vascular disease are the leading causes of death in the US, it’s important to take time every year to assess what you’re doing to reduce your risk. While you can’t change some things, like hereditary risks, you can identify other personal, lifestyle-related risks that can be improved upon. Every little change can help to significantly reduce your chances of developing not only heart and vascular disease but also other chronic diseases. So, what are you waiting for?

Here are a few major heart and vascular disease risk factors that you can change:

High Blood Pressure

Maintaining healthy blood pressure (BP) goes a long way in helping your heart stay healthy. So how do you know what’s what? Your blood pressure measurement contains two numbers: your systolic blood pressure (the top number) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number). A healthy BP is less than 120 systolic / less than 80 diastolic mm Hg.

Home BP monitoring is recommended as the most important tool to keep track of it and make changes as needed. Lowering your BP can be done by maintaining a healthy weight, reducing salt and sugar intake, increasing your daily potassium intake, and implementing regular exercise into your daily routine.

Tobacco and Nicotine Use

Speaking of blood pressure, quitting smoking almost immediately lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, and your risk of heart attack declines within 24 hours!

Merely reducing your tobacco intake isn’t enough to make the necessary changes that will keep your heart safe: you must quit. When you breathe in nicotine’s more than 7,000 chemicals, that toxic mix can interfere with important processes — namely the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to your heart and the rest of your body. Instead, your heart receives contaminated blood full of chemicals that can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to cardiovascular (CVD) disease.

Of the 800,000 CVD deaths in America each year, nearly 20 percent are due to cigarette smoking. Quit today and in one year you will have already halved your risk of heart disease.

Lack of Physical Activity

And when you quit smoking, your lung function improves within the first month, making it easier to comfortably exercise. Physical activity helps reduce triglycerides (keeping lipid levels healthy), blood pressure, and obesity — all of which are heart disease factors and all the more reason to get moving.

Uncontrolled Diabetes Mellitus

Uncontrolled diabetes mellitus is another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pre-diabetes is the early stages of increased blood sugar, but it can be managed before it becomes type 2 diabetes with healthy lifestyle and weight loss. Type 2 diabetes, together with high blood pressure, puts a lot of strain on your heart and increases the likelihood of heart disease and stroke. But you can manage diabetes mellitus and make great preventive moves with more exercise, weight loss, and a curb on your intake of refined sugars and grains.

Abnormal Blood Lipids

Lipoproteins (or “lipo,” along with proteins) are fat-carrying particles in the bloodstream that have many important functions in the body, which is why it’s crucial that they stay within a healthy range. Since blood lipids are made by your body, what you eat really affects them. To get an idea of where you stand, get a full lipid profile blood test to show the level of each type of fat in your blood: total cholesterol, LDL or “bad” cholesterol (LDL-C), HDL or “good” cholesterol (HDL-C), triglycerides, and non-HDL-C, which are all measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Don’t delay in reducing your risk of disease — your heart can’t wait.

The American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day is Feb. 4. Consider wearing red to help raise awareness about cardiovascular disease!

Dr. Pamela Morris is board-certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular diseases, and clinical lipidology and co-director of women’s heart care at MUSC Health. Dr. Morris co-authored Your Guide to Heart & Vascular Health, a guide for patients and families published in 2022 by MUSC Health Heart & Vascular Center.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Morris, call 843-792-1951 or visit her profile.