When you think of hearts this month, don’t just think of the Valentines. Take a few minutes to think about the amazing beating muscle that keeps you alive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us that heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the US. Since February is American Heart Month, it’s the perfect time to consider your risk factors and to be proactive about your healthcare.
According to The American Heart Association, “heart disease is a simple term used to describe several problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke.”
Don’t smoke: The damage from smoking is irreversible. Secondhand smoke is just as bad. Smoking causes atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease.
Eat less saturated fat: Limit yourself to 10 grams or fewer for healthy individuals, and no more than 5 grams for those with high cholesterol or heart disease. The average American consumes 30 grams of saturated fat per day. If people would avoid fried foods, that would help. Saturated fat is often hidden where you least expect it. In fact, vegetarians are often the biggest consumers of saturated fat. The lesson? Read labels!
Get more exercise: In general, people need more exercise. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes a day, five times a week for heart health. Najman walks the talk. He exercises two hours everyday, commuting to and from work in addition to other workouts.
Maintain a healthy body weight with diet and exercise: Check out the AHA’s Body Mass Calculator to determine your BMI.
Know your cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure numbers: LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) should be less than 70. Blood glucose levels and BMI are important indicators for diabetes. Blood pressure should be tested every year. The onset of high blood pressure is usually around age 30.
Know your family history of heart disease: Bad genes can contribute to heart disease even in people with healthy lifestyles.
Listen to your body: When you feel fatigued or out of breath, or something just doesn’t feel right, check in with your physician.
A cautionary tale about heart health
Jeff Espina was a fit, apparently healthy 42-year-old, when, in the middle of his regular volleyball match, he felt a sudden pain in his chest. What Espina didn’t know was that he was suffering a heart attack from a major blockage. He continued playing, despite the gripping pain in his chest. Finally, at the ER, he was quickly examined and diagnosed as having a heart attack. A stent was inserted in the blocked artery.
“You may look good on the outside, but bad genes can cause heart disease,” says Najman, who is Espina’s cardiologist.
While Espina didn’t have the obvious risk factors—he was thin, active, ate a relatively healthy diet—he did have genetic factors that he learned about after researching his family health history. For those with a family history of heart disease, there is a simple test to determine if you are at risk.
Reflecting back on his heart attack, Espina recalls a few episodes of waking up with what seemed like heartburn.
“I took an antacid and went back to sleep,” he recalls.
Now, Espina is on medication and checks in regularly with Najman. He’s back to playing volleyball and says he feels better in his breathing and movement. He urges others not to be complacent about heart health.
“Know your family history,” Espina says. “Be aware of any new aches and pains and get them checked out. Be prudent of how you treat your body.”
Heart attacks are a serious matter for women, too. Lisa Zimmer, a runner and young mother, suffered a scary heart attack. Her story is a reminder that women need to pay attention to their heart health, just like men.