By Maria Fleet
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America, but the disease is largely preventable.
What’s behind this paradox? We asked Dr. Joseph Hill, a cardiologist and clinical researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He says that while modern medicine has developed effective treatments for the disease – modern lifestyles can push in the opposite direction.
Dr. Hill says that in the last 70 years, the likelihood of dying of heart disease has declined by 70%. He calls that a spectacular success. “We haven’t cured heart disease,” he admits. “But we have largely transformed much of it from an acute disorder that will drop you in your tracks to a chronic disorder that we can talk about.” Perhaps the perception that heart disease is largely treatable is why we don’t talk about it enough.
First, what are we actually talking about when we say ‘cardiovascular disease’? Buildup of cholesterol in the heart arteries is the most common form of the disease, Dr. Hill says. That buildup can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
There are three key approaches that we can use to head off such catastrophic events:
1. Eating a healthy diet.
Dr. Hill says that the research shows, surprisingly, that the cholesterol buildup starts in our bodies as early as elementary school. We generally start with a measurement of 40 for our LDL cholesterol – the so-called “bad cholesterol”.
“Over the course of elementary school and college and life exposure to sugar-sweetened beverages, exposure to snack foods, putting on a few extra pounds – and that LDL climbs up and up and up,” he explains. Dr. Hill’s advice is to stick close to eating the traditional Mediterranean diet – full of fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains, and favoring fish over meats. It is, Dr. Hill says, “unquestionably the most healthy diet in the world.”
2. Tracking your heart numbers: LDL cholesterol and blood pressure.
Your LDL cholesterol level is one of a few key health markers to pay attention to in order to track your risk of developing heart disease. In general, it should be below 100, Dr. Hill advises. “If your LDL is too high, you should talk with your physician about a medication because we can definitely get that number down…the lower, the better,” he says.
Blood pressure is another indicator, and here again, the lower the better. Pay particular attention to the top number (the systolic blood pressure), Dr. Hill says. He advises that 120 or less is where you want it to be. If it’s above that, it can also be brought down with commonly used medications.
“The medicines that we use to control blood pressure are incredibly effective… we can control your blood pressure and decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke very substantially,” Dr. Hill underscores. Working with your physician to understand those numbers is important. So is taking action to get them in healthy range.
3. Reaching a healthier weight.
Another very important number to watch – you guessed it – is your weight. Carrying extra weight increases the risk for many other conditions that can lead to heart disease. “If you’re carrying a few extra pounds, it puts you at risk for high blood pressure, for metabolic syndrome, for diabetes,” Dr. Hill says. “And together that culminates in substantially increased risk for heart disease.”
Dr. Hill stresses that our actions on behalf of our health have an effect. “Losing even a little bit of weight is helpful,” he says. “Even dropping 10 or 20 pounds has an important impact,” he counsels. Perhaps surprisingly, women are just as much at risk for cardiovascular disease as men. Women tend to be much more cognizant about their risks for breast cancer, though they are almost 8 times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer. “A woman is far more likely to die of heart disease than anything else, and that’s often not appreciated, including by health care providers,” Dr. Hill says.
It bears mentioning that there are genetic risk factors, too. If you have a history of heart disease in your family, especially a relative that developed it in their 40’s or 50’s, let your doctor know. Genetic risks are something you can’t do anything about – but that’s all the more reason to pay attention to the things you can control.
The good news is that we have the power to substantially reduce our risk for developing heart disease. Reaching a healthier weight, watching our diet, keeping active and working with our doctor to get those key heart numbers in a healthy range can do a lot to head off this serious condition.
The first step is talking to your family doctor about how they can help you reach a healthier weight and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.
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This article was sponsored by Novo Nordisk. All content is created independently by My Weight – What To Know with no influence from Novo Nordisk.