When the first American Heart Month took place in February 1964, cardiovascular disease attributed for more than half of deaths nationwide, according to the American Heart Association.
Today, cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, is the leading cause of death, causing more than 17.3 million deaths annually. But there is some good news, says Dr. Asif M. Rehman, associate director of Interventional Cardiology at South Nassau Communities Hospital.
“You can reduce your chances or even prevent heart disease,” he says.
A lot of progress has occurred in cardiovascular treatment. Mortality has decreased, awareness has increased, and preventative measures education has improved. Early diagnosis and treatment at the right time is helping people to live longer.
“All these things have collectively improved our cardiovascular disease mortality and outcome,” Dr. Rehman says.
Knowing the risk factors — hypertension or high blood pressure, diabetes, increased cholesterol levels, obesity, genetics, poor habits such as smoking — and making lifestyle changes to combat them, can alter a prognosis and prevent further progression of heart disease, he says.
Know the warning signs
Pain radiating from the chest into the neck and left shoulder and shortness of breath are typical warning signs associated with men and heart attacks.
Women may experience those symptoms and pain in their back, neck or jaw and stomach, nausea or lightheadedness, sweating and fatigue. Traditionally, men have heart attacks or are diagnosed with heart disease at an earlier age than women, who are initially protected by hormones, but after age 55, both are at near-equal risk, says Dr. Rehman.
Don’t miss your annual checkup
Your trusted primary care doctor will order routine bloodwork, test for diabetes and check cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, etc., says Dr. Rehman.
“If you are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, you should have an established relationship with a cardiologist and follow their recommendation regarding treatment and follow-up,” he says.
Smoking is one of the main risk factors for heart disease and cancer. Secondhand smoke is just as dangerous, Dr. Rehman notes. Stop smoking to significantly improve your health and decrease your chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease.
Watch what you eat
Enjoy a healthy, balanced diet — one that is rich in fruits and vegetables, protein, has low carbohydrates, and includes healthy fats such as avocados, suggests Dr. Rehman.
Avoid fad diets, which are often unhealthy and cannot be sustained. Limit
excessive alcohol consumption.
Dr. Rehman recommends aerobic exercise three to four times per week for 30-45 minutes to prevent or stabilize cardiovascular disease.
People who are out of shape or overweight should gradually increase activity, walking on a treadmill, for example, to increase their heart rate at a comfortable, safe pace.
To some extent, physical and emotional stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Rehman.
Although stress cannot single-handedly create heart disease, “if you have an underlying cardiovascular disease that is asymptomatic or stable, when your body goes through emotional and physical stress that could become symptomatic,” says Dr. Rehman.
Get some sleep
A good night’s sleep, approximately eight hours, grants you more energy to increase your activity, and clarity to make smart, healthy choices.
Watch for sleep apnea, a disorder marked by inconsistent breathing, loud snoring and a feeling of exhaustion after a full night’s sleep.
This could contribute to a heart attack or stroke, Dr. Rehman warns.
Know your family history
Because of their genes, people sometimes develop a heart condition with little or no other known risk factors. While you can’t change your family history, you can be vigilant in monitoring your health care and adopting a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Rehman says.
“When you lose weight, your cholesterol will improve, your diabetes and blood pressure will get better,” says Dr. Rehman. “Life modification” can indeed change your life and your prognosis despite risk factors.
For those requiring medical assistance, technology has drastically improved quality of life and mortality rates, notes Dr. Rehman.
“If you have heart disease and address it at the right time, and if you are treated properly — which may include getting surgery, having a stent procedure or taking prescription medication to lower your blood pressure, for example — your quality of life can be good.”