Lowering Heart Disease Risk Factors
In the last 5 months of 2021, the CDC measured about 360 more deaths than usual in Vermont. About 220 deaths were linked to COVID. The remaining 140 were linked to other causes, including the nation’s biggest killer, heart disease. The pandemic closed gyms and made people fearful of exercising together. Many people put on extra pounds. Clearly, the pandemic intensified the risk factors for heart disease. Heart month, observed each February, is a great time to review what positive changes you could make to decrease your risks of heart disease.
About half of all Americans have at least one of three major interrelated risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and smoking. High blood pressure and high cholesterol have no symptoms. Knowing that your levels may put you at higher risk requires getting your blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked, usually at a doctor’s visit. The good news is that both respond well to the same set of lifestyle changes.
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Some people find success with the DASH diet. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which is another word for high blood pressure.) Others might prefer the Mediterranean Diet. All of the diets that help people reduce their blood pressure and cholesterol limit processed foods, added sugar, and refined grains.
Regular exercise is the best medicine. The act of exercising actually increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This type of cholesterol has a protective effect against heart disease. Begin with any exercise that is manageable and enjoyable for you and work up to 30 minutes per day 5 days per week. If you increase the intensity, you could do 20 minutes a day 3 days per week.
Getting enough sleep can help reduce heart disease risk factors. Blood pressure naturally decreases when we sleep. Sleep problems relate to higher blood pressure for a longer time each day.
There’s no doubt that smoking is one of the most difficult habits to break. But quitting smoking also has the potential to have the greatest impact on your overall health. Almost immediately, you will begin to notice positive changes and, over time, you will decrease your risk for the deadliest diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
Making one set of healthy changes can help drive others. For instance, if you start with improving your diet, you may notice increased energy for exercise. Getting more exercise may help improve your sleep. And if you don’t know where to start, your primary care provider can provide resources and help you make a plan.
Scott Rogge, MD, is the medical director of Cardiology at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, in Bennington.