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10 Steps to a Healthy Heart

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Feb 1st, 2014


As we speed into a new year, it is important for us to take steps to reduce our risk for or prevent heart disease. Angela Genusa suggests ten important steps.

Stephanie Montgomery was out celebrating her 45th birthday on a Friday night last month, eating crab legs with her family in Bastrop, where she lives. All of a sudden, she felt overwhelmingly hot and nauseated. “I thought I had eaten some bad seafood,” she said. Her daughter wanted to call an ambulance, but Stephanie told her, “No, we’re going to wait.” That was at 10:30 p.m. At 6:00 the next morning, she was still nauseated. Her sister drove her to Morehouse General Hospital. After emergency room staff ran a blood test, a doctor told Stephanie she’d had a heart attack. She was in total disbelief.

“I didn’t have any pain in my chest or my arms—all the symptoms you read about that happen to men,” she said. “I just got nauseated and hot, just like when you’ve gotten some bad food. All the time it was a heart attack.”

Stephanie was rushed to Glenwood Hospital in West Monroe, where she underwent a procedure to open a coronary artery that was 95 percent blocked. She is very fortunate to have survived a heart attack. Stephanie is one of about 435,000 American women who will have heart attacks this year—some 267,000 of whom will die.

Most people don’t consider heart disease a woman’s disease. Yet cardiovascular disease of all kinds is the leading killer of women over age 25. It kills nearly twice as many women in the United States as all types of cancer, including breast cancer. And stroke is the number 4 leading cause of death in women in the United States.

“Heart disease and stroke are silent killers,” said Jennifer Ables, regional director at the American Heart Association. “Most women do not know they are at risk until something drastic happens—heart attack, stroke, and sadly, even death.”
In northeast Louisiana, women rank higher than the national average for hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, Ables said. Women in northeast Louisiana are also above the national average in sedentary lifestyle and unhealthful diets.

What steps can you take to reduce your risk for or prevent heart disease? Here are 10 important steps:

Although Stephanie’s mother had had a heart attack in her late 50s, Stephanie didn’t know, at the time, that this was an indicator of health problems that might lie ahead for her personally. “After I had mine, I started investigating, and I found out that four of my aunts had heart attacks, one of them had had open heart surgery, and then my mom.”
Ask members of your family if anyone has had heart disease or any of the risk factors for heart disease. If the answer is yes, you will know that you have an increased risk for developing heart disease. “It is important to have an idea of what your family history is because there’s no doubt that helps predict a person’s risk for what kind of trouble they might develop,” said Dr. Ronald Koepke, a cardiologist in West Monroe. If there is a pattern of heart disease in your family such as in Stephanie’s, you can monitor your health more closely with your physician’s help.

A yearly physical checkup with your family doctor is recommended, Dr. Koepke said. Also, the AHA recommends that you get your cholesterol checked every five years, your blood pressure at least every two years, your blood glucose levels every three years, waist circumference as needed and body mass index during regular healthcare visits. You should also have your blood sugar level tested regularly.

A balanced, healthy diet is crucial in preventing heart disease, Dr. Koepke said. “It can prevent obesity which can cause heart disease,” he said. “There are many different diets to choose from, but what I would call ‘the Mediterranean diet’ is the most reasonable for our lifestyles.”

The AHA recommends what is essentially a Mediterranean diet: foods that are nutrient-dense like colorful vegetables and fruits, fiber-rich whole-grains, fish rich in omega-3s, lean meats, skinless chicken and fat-free, 1-percent fat and low-fat dairy. Choose foods low in saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar. These foods give your heart the nutrients it needs and also improve your cholesterol and blood pressure. Minimize sodium and saturated fats, and avoid trans fats, fried foods and sugary drinks. Eliminate processed foods, which are usually high in sodium, from your diet.

Exercise is also extremely important to prevent heart disease, Dr. Koepke said. It lowers your blood pressure, helps you maintain a normal weight, reduces stress and usually helps control cholesterol and sugars.

“When I tell people to exercise, they think, ‘Oh, I gotta get out and run 10 miles a day.’,” Dr. Koepke said. “That’s not it. When you go from a sedentary lifestyle to moderate exercise, you get a huge benefit in eliminating risk factors for heart disease. I try to tell people you don’t have to become an exercise addict to get these benefits. You just have to go from being sedentary to exercising moderately.”

The AHA recommends 40 minutes of exercise three to four times per week for women. Try brisk walking, jogging, yoga, bicycling, swimming or workout routines you can do at home or with friends. You can also incorporate core strengthening exercises once a week which also increase bone density.

“Smoking is one of the most preventable causes of heart disease and death, and people should just not smoke,” Dr. Koepke said. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by two to four times. Also, women who smoke have a 25 percent higher risk of developing heart disease as compared to men who smoke. Cigarette smoking combined with the use of oral birth control increases the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.

When you stop smoking, your risk for heart disease and stroke can be cut in half just one year later, and it will continue to decline. Also, when you stop smoking, you help lower your blood pressure and your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Even being around smoke increases the risk for heart disease and death. According to a U.S. Surgeon General report, even nonsmokers are up to 30 percent more likely to develop heart disease or lung cancer from secondhand smoke exposure. Avoid it whenever possible.

The term “moderation” is key when it comes to drinking, Dr. Koepke said. Drinking heavily can cause a spike in your blood pressure, and in some cases, cause heart failure and lead to a stroke. Have no more than one drink per day, defined as:
•    1-1/2 fluid ounces of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, gin, scotch, vodka, etc.)
•    1 fl. oz. of 100-proof spirits
•    4 fl. oz. of wine
•    12 fl. oz. of beer

The quantity and quality of your sleep can have an effect on your heart. “Sleep is becoming more important, and we’re paying more attention to it,” Dr. Koepke said. The AHA recommends adults get six to eight hours of sleep per night. Also, as our population has become more overweight, sleep apnea has become common and is associated with hypertension, heart rhythm disorders and other heart problems, Dr. Koepke said. If you feel fatigued during the daytime and especially if you snore at night, then being evaluated for sleep apnea may be something to discuss with your doctor.

Stress raises blood pressure and heart rate and has an adverse effect on your heart, Dr. Koepke said. But stress is difficult to measure, because it varies from person to person. If you feel stressed, evaluate your situation and practice stress management techniques to reduce stress in your life. A significant but preventable source of stress is worrying. Try taking 20 to 30 minutes a day to breathe deeply, sit quietly, and relax.

“Pay attention to your body and when you have a change in symptoms, that’s the time to go to your doctor,” Dr. Koepke said. “Symptoms of heart disease in women can be a lot different than in men. When there’s a change in your activity level or fatigue level, when something feels different, and you don’t feel right, you should be evaluated, even if it’s not your classic chest pain.”

To learn more, visit http://www.goredforwomen.org, http://www.heart.org and on Facebook https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/General/Northeast-Louisiana-Go-Red_UCM_319205_Event.jsp.

Monitor your blood pressure and weight regularly, and find out your cholesterol level with a simple blood test your doctor can order. Discuss these numbers with your physician, and with his or her help, you can watch for any changes and make informed decisions. Try to consume less than 200 mg of total cholesterol daily. A brief list of the numbers you need to know and your goals, as recommended by the AHA:

•    Weight
•    Total cholesterol: 200 mg/dL or lower
•    HDL (good) cholesterol: 50 mg/dL or higher
•    LDL (bad) cholesterol: 100 mg/dL or lower
•    Triglycerides: 150 mg/dL or lower
•    Blood pressure: 120/80 mm Hg or lower
•    Body Mass Index: Less than 25 kg/m2
•    Waist circumference: Less than 35 in. (for women)