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February 21, 2006 > A healthy lifestyle will do your heart good

A healthy lifestyle will do your heart good

Heart attacks are the number one cause of death in the United States. Yet people who pay attention to certain risk factors can dramatically reduce their chances of a heart attack.

"The most common risk factors for heart attacks are diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history of heart attacks and smoking," says Washington Hospital cardiologist Dr. Ash Jain. "Additional risk factors include being overweight, poor stress management and lack of exercise. Your risk of heart disease also increases as you grow older. Some risks are beyond your control, such as your age and family history, but you can avoid many of the other risks by making changes in your lifestyle."

To help you learn about your risks for heart attack, as well as guidelines for a heart-healthy diet and other preventive measures, Dr. Jain and Lorie Roffelsen, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital, will present a special Health & Wellness seminar on Tuesday, February 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. The seminar will be held in the Conference Center adjacent to Washington Hospital's Nakamura Clinic at 33077 Alvarado-Niles Road in Union City. To register to attend - which is required - please call (800) 963-7070.

Jain notes the heart disease risk factors that can be controlled include:

  • Smoking: Cigarette smokers have two to four times the risk of developing heart disease as nonsmokers.
  • Exercise: Many experts recommend exercising a minimum of 30 minutes, three to five days a week. Always consult your physician before beginning an exercise program to determine what level of activity is appropriate for you.
  • Proper diet: Maintain a diet that is low in saturated (animal) fats and "trans-fats." You also should eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • High cholesterol: The risk of heart disease increases as levels of the blood's cholesterol levels increase.
  • Obesity: Excess body fat (often defined as 20% over "ideal" weight) contributes to heart disease because extra weight strains the heart. Obesity also influences blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.
  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure increases the workload on your heart and blood vessels. The changes above -- exercise, proper diet, smoking cessation and weight loss -- can all help lower your blood pressure.
  • Diabetes: More than 80 percent of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. If you have diabetes, you need to monitor your blood sugar levels carefully.
  • Excessive stress: Continuous emotional stress can contribute to heart disease. People who are experiencing extraordinary stress should seek remedies such as relaxation techniques, exercise and counseling.

"Most people today are aware of the benefits of managing their cholesterol and blood pressure," Roffelsen says. "It's important to keep in mind, though, that there are two types of cholesterol: LDL, sometimes called 'bad' cholesterol, and HDL, or 'good' cholesterol. In general, the recommendations are to keep your total cholesterol level below 200, with the LDL level below 160 and the HDL level above 40. Each individual is different, though, and your physician may recommend lower LDL and higher HDL levels if you have diabetes or have suffered a previous heart attack or have a family history of heart disease."

Roffelsen advises keeping your total intake of dietary cholesterol below 300 milligrams a day. "Depending on your other risk factors, your physician may recommend a dietary cholesterol intake of less than 200 milligrams a day," she explains. "Even when you follow a healthy diet, you may have high cholesterol due to hereditary factors. If you cannot achieve your cholesterol goals through diet alone, your physician may recommend medications that can help lower cholesterol."

Because obesity can contribute significantly to high blood pressure, Roffelsen emphasizes the importance of weight management, "The best way to lose weight and keep it off is to exercise and eat a diet that is high in fiber and low in caloric density and fat," she says. "Fiber, especially the soluble type, acts to bind dietary cholesterol in the gut. It's best to get fiber from food sources, such as beans, peas, lentils, citrus fruits, apples and pears and whole grains like oats, barley and flax. Foods from animal sources, including milk, eggs and meat are generally high in saturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week for the benefits derived from Omega-3 fatty acids and because fish is much lower in saturated fat than red meat."

Making positive lifestyle changes is an important aspect of maintaining your heart health. Regular physical checkups are another.

"People who don't have any substantial risk factors for heart disease should get a checkup after age 40 anyway," Jain says. "If you do have any risk factors, you should see your doctor for a checkup at an earlier age and get follow-up exams on a regular basis. If you've already had a heart attack, get checked at least every year, or more often if your physician recommends it.

"We need to be aggressive in treating heart disease," Jain adds. "It is sometimes hard to convince people of the heart attack risks they face in the absence of pain, but you absolutely must not wait until you have a heart attack to deal with your risk factors. It is far easier to deal with your risk factors before a heart attack than afterward."

The Washington Community Health Resource Library offers free blood pressure screenings. The blood pressure screening machine also determines your Body Mass Index (BMI), pulse rate, weight and height. Screenings are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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