Tag Archives: blood lipids

Your Heart Month action plan

Heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. Despite improvements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it is still 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. You can learn much more about heart disease from the American Heart Association.

Since February is Heart Month, this is an ideal time to assess your own risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your heart health. If you aren’t sure where to begin, my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes four simple steps you can take to assess and lower your risk for heart disease. If you aren’t sure where to begin, these four steps should be a good start to prevent and treat heart disease.

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Here is your Heart Month action plan:

  1. Assess your risk. 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. You may be able to find a health fair or other event in the community at which you can have many of these measurements made, but only your doctor can help you determine the best course of treatment given your personal risk profile.
  1. Be active everyday. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes per day physical activity 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, that can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!
  1. Improve your diet. If you are like most Americans, your diet is too high in unhealthy fats, salt, and added sugar and lacking adequate whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fiber. This type of diet is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these conditions are risk factors for heart disease, so you may literally be eating your way to a heart attack. Changing what you eat to include more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat meat and dairy and minimizing added sugars, fat, and processed foods can help you lose weight and prevent or treat high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  1. Quit smoking. There is no way around this one—quit! Ask your doctor about prescription medications that can make quitting easier. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can help manage cravings and are available over the counter. Ultimately, though, quitting smoking is a behavior change that takes motivation, willpower, and time. But it is worth it—your risk of heart attack goes down within days and can drop 50–70% within five years after quitting.

The potential impact of these steps is great. Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make the most effective treatment decisions. Even modest changes in diet and activity can lead to improvements in risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that you can start today by putting down your next cigarette, going for a walk, and eating a healthier dinner. Your heart will be glad you did.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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How low should you go?

When it comes to your health, making even small changes can lead to big improvements. Whether you are trying to eat a healthier diet, get in shape, or lose weight, a little effort can go a long way. But doing more can produce even more meaningful changes.

The same is true for risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. For example, if you have high blood pressure, you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke by lowering it, even if it doesn’t get into the “normal” range. This is often a goal for patients with high cholesterol or diabetes, too.

According to recent news reports, a major study suggests that treating risk factors—specifically, hypertension—to bring them well below previous targets has even greater benefits. This study, and how it applies to other health indicators, is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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The study, which examined the effect of lowering blood pressure on heart attack and stroke risk, produced such remarkable findings that the results will be published two years ahead of schedule. The researchers found that lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number) to less than 120 mmHg resulted in a risk of heart attack or stroke that was significantly lower than that of treating blood pressure to a typical goal of below 140 mmHg.

This suggests that getting your blood pressure out of the “high” category isn’t enough and that lowering it more is beneficial. Not only is this is good news for people with hypertension, but it also likely applies to other conditions as well. For example, the goal for people with type 2 diabetes is to get blood glucose level, frequently determined by the “A1c” number, as low as possible to prevent complications like blindness, kidney failure, and amputations. And it seems that the risk of heart problems are reduced proportionally to how low LDL cholesterol gets.

This concept can also be applied to health behaviors. For people who are mostly sedentary, something as simple as a 30 minute walk each day can lead to big improvements in fitness. And simply swapping high-calorie drinks like soda or sweet tea for water or other calorie-free beverages can result in noticeable weight loss for many people. And overweight individuals can reduce their risk of diabetes by losing as little as 10% of their excess weight.

But greater changes to activity level or diet almost always have even bigger benefits. Cutting back on calories from drinks is a good start, but losing significant weight almost always requires making other changes in what you eat and how active you are. Walking is an excellent exercise, but greater improvements can be achieved by doing more, either longer duration or a higher intensity. And building muscle will require doing some form of resistance training—walking typically isn’t enough.

It’s true that every pound of weight loss matters, and many people notice changes in how they feel or how their clothes fit after losing as few as 10 pounds. But real transformations in appearance or health require more significant weight loss, especially for people with greater obesity.

Although the SPRINT study focused on only one factor, blood pressure, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to making only one change when it comes to our health. Indeed, the benefits of increasing activity, losing weight, and eating healthier together far exceed doing only one. And, while even small changes make a difference, doing more will almost always result in bigger benefits.