February is Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. This is important because heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. It is responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly from heart attacks. Millions more are at increased risk because of certain biological and behavioral risk factors.
Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, sex, and family history, while others can be altered to reduce risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. While your doctor can play an important role in treating these conditions, there is much you can do on your own to improve your heart health.
The first step is to get a good assessment of your heart health. If you haven’t done so recently, you should see your doctor to have your risk factors evaluated. This includes tests for blood glucose and blood lipids (including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides), measurement of your blood pressure and body weight, and an assessment of other health factors such as your family history, whether you smoke, and your level of physical activity.
The next step is to treat the risk factors that you have. Depending on the severity and your own personal health history your doctor may prescribe medications to lower your blood pressure, blood glucose, or blood lipids. These medications are most effective when combined with lifestyle changes including good nutrition, exercise, and weight loss. In some cases, poor diet and lack of activity can counteract the beneficial effects of these drugs. Furthermore, these healthy habits may help you reduce the dosage, and limiting the side effects, or stop taking the medications altogether.
The other risk factors—obesity, inactivity, and smoking—really must be treated through lifestyle management. While there are medications that can help with smoking cessation and weight loss, being successful requires making lasting behavior changes. These habits can be difficult to change, and many people have tried before without success. Keep in mind, though, that everyone who is successful at quitting smoking, losing weight, or sticking to an exercise program has experienced his or her share of difficulty. The difference is that those people kept trying until they were successful. You can be successful, too.
Even small changes can have a big impact. Take exercise, for example. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes of physical activity per day are well established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, which can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!
Of course, there are steps you can take beyond becoming more physically active to reduce your risk of heart disease. The list of beneficial changes you can make to improve your heart health is long, but keep in mind that even small changes can add up to a big benefit.
Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make effective treatment decisions. Quitting smoking, increasing your physical activity (and reducing sedentary time), and eating a healthier diet can lead to improvements in heart disease risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that these same changes can also reduce your risk of other serious health problems including many types of cancer, stroke, and lung disease.