By Brooke Parker, DO, MBA
With Heart Health Awareness Month behind us, it’s important to move forward with the knowledge to carry us through the rest of the year, and beyond. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, remains the leading global cause of death with more than 17.9 million deaths each year and is expected to rise to more than 23.6 million by 2030.
Let’s start with the most common heart condition, coronary artery disease. This can ultimately lead to heart failure or heart attack. It develops when major blood vessels that supply the heart become damaged due to cholesterol and plaque buildup, blocking the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.
What causes it? The main contributing factors are tobacco and obesity. Smoking greatly increases the risks of developing cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease and stroke.
Many people refuse to stop smoking because they figure the damage is already done. However, the risk of heart disease decreases significantly soon after a person quits.
The other major contributing factor to heart disease is obesity. Overeating and not getting proper exercise are the main risk factors that can lead to diabetes (another heart risk factor) and increase the chances of a heart attack.
While obesity and smoking tobacco are two of the biggest risk factors for heart disease, genetics and diabetes are also major contributors. Genetic factors such as high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease can be passed down within the family.
While most patients develop diabetes over time due to lifestyle habits such as lack of exercise or an unhealthy diet, others develop the disease hereditarily. Diabetes tends to run in families, and some ethnic groups are more prone to it than others, such as Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans. Anyone affected by diabetes has an increased risk for heart disease.
Other risk factors for heart disease include age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of physical exercise, being overweight and having an unhealthy diet.
Cardiovascular health and disease prevention is paramount for overall health and wellness, and the biggest part of living healthy comes down to making healthy choices. While we can’t change things like age and family history, the good news is that even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can improve heart health and lower risk by as much as 80 percent.
Any type of physical activity, whether it’s walking, running, weight lifting, or hiking, will greatly reduce the risks of heart disease. Additionally, a well-balanced diet goes a long way. Eating food in moderation and making an effort to eat more vegetables and proteins will help as well.
It’s important to take control of your health as early as possible. Many times, the average American doesn’t want to put forth the effort to exercise, eat healthy and lose weight because it takes time and commitment. Oftentimes, people wait until it’s too late—until they’re in a life-threatening position as a result of their declining health. Only then do they decide to make a lifestyle change. Don’t wait for the wake-up call. Take responsibility now so that you can live a longer, healthy, happier life.
If you are struggling with heart health, it’s important to note that the chest pain is more of a pressure feel, not a sharp pain as some people believe. Additionally, if you feel chest pressure and shortness of breath during exertion (when running, walking the dog, etc.), but it goes away as soon as your body slows down, that is a warning sign of a heart condition, and you should consult your physician immediately.
Dr. Brooke Parker is a Family Medicine provider at Pacific Medical Centers.