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Heart Disease Prevention: Risk Factor Modification

The best way to prevent heart disease is to reduce your risk for developing it

So, what can you do to modify your personal risk factors? The most important step you can take is to talk to your doctor or a member of your healthcare team to develop a plan to help you reduce your chances of getting heart disease. The more you know about your personal risks, the easier it will be to address them. The good news is risk reduction is within your control – and even small changes can make a big difference.

Heart disease risk factors you can control

  • Smoking – Using tobacco in any form and spending time around second-hand smoke is severely damaging to your heart health and your general health. If you smoke, quit. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about strategies that have worked for others.
  • High cholesterol – While heredity may have an effect on your cholesterol, so do exercise, diet, and other lifestyle factors. If you have high LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and/or low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) or you have high triglycerides, you are at an increased risk for heart disease. You can improve your cholesterol numbers by adopting heart-healthy habits and, if necessary, taking medication.
  • High blood pressure – Controlling your blood pressure is an important step toward maintaining heart health. High blood pressure for extended periods of time can damage your blood vessels, increasing your risk for heart attack, stroke, and other problems. You can make lifestyle modifications to reduce your blood pressure, and your doctor may also recommend medication to help lower it.
  • Diabetes – Preventing or managing diabetes is important to reducing your risk for heart disease. Diabetes can damage blood vessels, making it easier for plaque to build up in the walls of the blood vessels, causing coronary artery disease. Controlling your blood sugar and insulin levels is one thing you can do to help reduce your risk. Preventing diabetes with diet and exercise is an important step, but if you have diabetes, it’s vital for you to manage your blood sugar levels either with lifestyle changes or medication (or both).
  • Weight – Being overweight puts you at risk for many health conditions, including heart disease. If you’re overweight, work with your healthcare team to come up with a safe and effective plan to get to a healthy weight. If you’re at a healthy weight, take steps to maintain it.
  • A sedentary lifestyle – When you don’t exercise regularly or sit for prolonged periods of time, your risk for heart disease increases. This is one of the easiest risk factors to control. Find time in your schedule to exercise at least once a day, for at least an hour total if you can, and take frequent movement breaks if you have a sedentary job. You should aim to move for five minutes at least once per hour.
  • Stress – It’s easier said than done, we know, but minimizing stress and learning to manage the effects of inevitable stress is something you can do to reduce your heart disease risk. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, anything that helps calm your mind and your body.

The effects of fad diets on heart health

It’s true that eating a heart-healthy diet is one good way to help reduce your risk for heart disease. But what does a heart-healthy diet look like? We’ll touch on a few of the well-known diets and talk about their effect on heart health.

  • No carb diets like Atkins – Carbs are an important source of energy for the body, and cutting them out completely can have negative effects and can even be dangerous, including impairing blood flow through the coronary arteries. Also, a diet made up primarily of fats isn’t healthy either. It puts people at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease because excess fat can build up in the blood and cause atherosclerosis or stroke.
  • Liquid diets and cleanses – One of the unintended and negative effects of liquid diets and juice cleanses is significant decreases in blood levels of vitamins like potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, which can lead to arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.
  • Low sugar, glycemic index diets – Diets like the South Beach Diet or the Zone diet are based in the concept of the glycemic index. They allow sugar consumption, but only if it has a low glycemic index. We don’t know of any clinical trials that show low glycemic index diets to prevent cardiovascular disease.
  • Mediterranean diet – A diet that includes an abundance of plant food, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds; minimally processed, seasonal foods; polyunsaturated fats like olive oil; low levels of dairy products; fish and poultry; and limited wine with meals is considered a Mediterranean diet. In addition to being effective at reducing weight, it also has the benefit of reducing cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, so fewer people who eat this way experience heart disease and related death.
  • DASH diet – This is a diet like the Mediterranean diet. It is designed to reduce blood pressure, and evidence shows that it does have that effect even though it’s not a low-sodium diet.

The most important thing to remember when trying to improve heart health or lower risk of cardiovascular disease is to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, and limit your intake of high-fat, high-cholesterol, high-sugar foods and red meat. It’s also important to limit your portions and drink enough water. You don’t need fad diets if you adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle, and you don’t have to give up all the foods you love either. Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian who can help you develop an eating plan that works for you.

Healthcare specialists who can help you change your lifestyle

There are several specialists who can help you take the steps you need to reduce your risk of heart disease. Here are a few:

  • Dietitians can provide information about what a heart-healthy diet looks like and can give you tips about how to incorporate this type of diet into your life – no matter how busy you are or how limited your cooking knowledge is.
  • Physical therapists can help you with strength training exercises and posture to improve your strength and overall health, which can help you reduce many risk factors.
  • Personal trainers can show you exercises you can do to improve your physical and cardiovascular health.
  • Social workers and therapists can help you find ways to manage and reduce stress.
  • Addictions counselors can help you tackle drug or alcohol addictions.
  • Eating disorder specialists can help you treat an eating disorder, which can in turn help you adopt a healthier lifestyle.
  • A smoking cessation specialist can help you quit smoking.
  • Weight management professionals can help you with a total weight reduction plan to help you reduce your risk and improve your overall health.
  • Internal medicine doctors can help you monitor your health and take medication if necessary to treat health conditions.
  • Cardiologists can help you keep your heart healthy and address any heart issues you have.
  • Cardiovascular and cardiothoracic surgeons can evaluate and treat any heart conditions if you require surgery.

Resources available for people in lower income brackets

The American Heart Association is an advocate for federal funding of programs that help prevent and reduce cardiovascular disease. According to their website, they advocate for:

  • The Prevention and Public Health fund, which awards grants to programs such as:
    • Million Hearts, a national initiative to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes in five years
    • Community Transformation Grants, which provides money to community-based programs that work to prevent chronic diseases
  • The CDC’s Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Program
  • The CDC’s WISEWOMAN program, which provides screenings for low-income women without insurance for heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems

The Patient Protection Affordable Care Act (PPACA) offers free screenings for many cardiovascular risk factors, including:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Obesity screening and counseling (and diet counseling)
  • Tobacco use screening

Financial Resources

There are some financial resources available to under-insured and uninsured people in the United States to make sure everyone gets the preventive care and treatment they need. Some of those resources are:

  • Life Line Screening
  • The Larry King Cardiac Foundation
  • National underinsured Resource Directory
  • NeedyMeds
  • The Partnership for Prescription Assistance

Where can you get help, before it’s too late?

If you’re reading this page, then it’s not too late for you to start getting help. Your doctor can help you access screenings, tests, and treatments, and he or she can refer you to other specialists who can help too. If you have financial barriers to receiving preventive care and treatment, talk to your doctor and ask about resources. Also check with your local county health department. They often know of many local resources that can help.

You can also do a lot of work at home too. For example, follow the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7,” and you’ll go a long way toward preventing heart disease.

Get a referral to a Beaumont primary care physician or specialist online or by calling 800-633-7377.