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Making A Healthy Heart A Priority

Committing to being heart healthy is not a once a year, once-in-a-while obligation. Being heart healthy is an ongoing, continuous commitment to changing, maintaining and improving your lifestyle, but it doesn't have to be challenging.

Memorial Hospital of Converse County's Cardiologist Dr. Allan Mattern witnesses the long-term impacts of heart disease on a daily basis and believes that being proactive about heart health is the best way to keep heart health in check. From simply walking a few times a week to monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol, people can improve their heart health with just a few tweaks to their lifestyle and starting immediately is the key to the greatest success.

"You don't want to pay attention to these things when you're older," Mattern said. "You don't get it back if you've already done a significant amount of damage."

While some may think they're too young to have heart disease, Mattern said healthy habits are important to start early in life. Once damage has been done to arteries and heart, it can't just be undone. One of the biggest and most important changes to make if you're a smoker, is to quit. Smoking can have an extremely damaging effect on a person's heart. With the support from a doctor and loved ones, quitting smoking can be accomplished. "If you're smoking, somewhere along the way, you'll have heart issues," Mattern said. "When you smoke, you injure the lining of the artery. Talk to your physician to get appropriate support to quit."

Another concern that may put people into a high risk category for heart disease is a family history of heart disease. If that's the case, it's extremely important to monitor blood pressure and cholesterol on a regular basis. "If you have a bad family history, you want to get that checked out," Mattern said. "If there's family history, screening should be done more frequently."

Annual screenings are a good idea for most people and especially for men older than 55 and women older than 60, Mattern said. A check-up should include a blood pressure check and a lipid profile. If you're already diagnosed with high blood pressure, Mattern said it's a good idea to monitor blood pressure at home. However, he encourages having your personal blood pressure cuff checked against a doctor's blood pressure cuff once a year.

Even for those who are young, Mattern said it's important to get a lipid profile to provide a baseline for subsequent results. If a lipid profile is good and there's no risk factors, including family heart disease history, Mattern said he recommends follow up lipid profiles every four or five years. But Mattern cautions, it's equally important for women to monitor their heart health. Because unfortunately, women are equally at risk for heart disease and heart attacks can be more deadly.

"Women have a higher mortality rate," Mattern said. "They have smaller blood vessels, they're harder to treat in general. Women have to be aware their heart can be as abnormal as a man's." For women, it is also difficult to discern if they're having a heart attack because symptoms can be less obvious than those that men often experience. "Heart disease in women is underdiagnosed," Mattern said. "Women present in a different format, usually with fatigue and heartburn."

Ultimately, whether you're a man or a woman, being heart healthy comes down to just a couple of things: eat right and exercise. Walking for 30 minutes four to five times a week is one of the best forms of exercise, Mattern said and may help you avoid America's number one killer, heart disease. "It can be recreational," Mattern said. "It doesn't have to be aerobic. Keep your weight down to compatible with your age and body size."

Even getting up and walking around for five minutes has benefits to people who sit at a desk or computer all day. "You can manufacture things to do," Mattern said. "Anything you do is beneficial exercise wise. Exercise is a good stress reducer." Whether it is a quick 20-minute walk, an hour-long Power Pump class or some other form of exercise, there is much benefit to the heart in exercising.

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Live a Healthy Lifestyle

  • Eat a healthy diet. Choosing healthful meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber can help prevent high blood cholesterol. Limiting salt or sodium in your diet can also lower your blood pressure.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease. To determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, doctors often calculate a number called the body mass index (BMI). Doctors sometimes also use waist and hip measurements to measure a person's excess body fat.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The Surgeon General recommends adults engage in moderate-intensity exercise for 2 hours and 30 minutes every week.
  • Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. So, if you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Your doctor can suggest ways to help you quit.
  • Limit alcohol use. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which causes high blood pressure.

Key Definitions

  • Heart disease refers to several different types of heart conditions.
  • Coronary artery disease is a type of heart disease that occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart.
  • Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits, which can accumulate in your arteries.
  • Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when too much plaque builds up in your arteries, causing them to narrow.
  • Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the body. High levels in the blood can lead to heart disease and stroke.
  • Diabetes is a disease that affects the body's use of insulin. Insulin tells the body to remove sugar from the blood. People with diabetes either don't make enough insulin, can't use their own insulin as well as they should, or both.
  • Obesity is excess body fat.

Prevent or Treat Your Medical Conditions

If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, there are steps you can take to lower your risk for heart disease.

  • Have your cholesterol checked. Your health care provider should test your cholesterol levels at least once every five years. Talk with your doctor about this simple blood test.
  • Monitor your blood pressure. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so be sure to have it checked on a regular basis.
  • Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, closely monitor your blood sugar levels. Talk with your health care provider about treatment options.
  • Take your medicine. If you're taking medication to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Always ask questions if you don't understand something.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider. You and your doctor can work together to prevent or treat the medical conditions that lead to heart disease. Discuss your treatment plan regularly and bring a list of questions to your appointments.