American Heart Month: 8 Keys to a Healthier Heart

FEBRUARY 2, 2016

In 1964, the United States observed the first American Heart Month. The presidential proclamation designating February of that year as the month to bring attention to heart health cited some sobering statistics: “diseases of the heart and the circulatory system are responsible for over one-half the deaths occurring annually” and “over one-half of the ten million Americans afflicted by the cardiovascular diseases are stricken during their most productive years, thereby causing a staggering physical and economic loss to the nation…”

Fifty-two years later, some significant progress has been made:

  • In 1964, 54 percent of deaths were related to cardiovascular disease; in 2014, that percentage had dropped to 32 percent.
  • In 1964, there were 10 million Americans living with cardiovascular disease; today there are more than 80 million.  The increase is in part due to population growth, but is largely fueled by tremendous medical advances that are helping people live longer lives when cardiovascular disease is detected, treated and managed.

At the same time, the fact that so many Americans are still affected by cardiovascular disease demonstrates that much more needs to be done to prevent heart disease in the first place. “While we have undoubtedly made a lot of progress, cardiovascular disease remains the single biggest killer of both men and women in the United States,” says Dr. James Anderson, a Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeon. “People are often surprised to learn that more Americans die from heart disease each year than all forms of cancer, combined.”

Those are troubling statistics, says Internal Medicine and Primary Care Physician Dr. Curtis Evans, especially considering many instances of heart disease could have been prevented through different lifestyle choices. “While some people suffer from heart disease as a result of genetics, many cases we see are a direct result of lifestyle factors. In the 1960s, there was a lot that people did not yet know about heart disease. That’s changed – we now better understand some of the major causes of heart disease and ways people can protect their hearts, improve their overall health and live healthier lives.”

Keys to a Healthier Heart

There are a number of factors that can negatively affect your cardiovascular health. Some of the most common are: smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, uncontrolled diabetes, stress, body weight and diet, and physical activity level. This may seem like a lot of things to worry about, but it’s really not as daunting as it may sound, notes Dr. Katherine Kane, a Vascular Surgeon.

“The good news is that most of the metrics you want to keep an eye on for your heart health are inter-related. For example, you can improve your cholesterol levels by eating healthier, which can also reduce your blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” she said. “A better diet will help you lose weight, and weight loss tends to also positively affect cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. And if you increase your physical activity, that also helps with weight loss, and so on.”

Here’s a breakdown of these eight keys to better cardiovascular health, why they are important and how you can impact them:

Manage Your Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, naturally-occurring substance in our bodies. We produce cholesterol in order to create hormones and substances that aid the digestive process. While our bodies produce all the cholesterol we need on their own, we also consume additional cholesterol through food, such as meat, dairy, eggs and foods which contain trans fat.

Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream by what are known as lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins, low-density (LDL) and high-density (HDL). This is often short-handed when people say “bad cholesterol” and “good cholesterol” – LDL levels which are too high can be unhealthy, while HDL levels which are too low are also unhealthy.

The higher a person’s LDL cholesterol is, the greater the risk of developing heart disease. That’s because LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, including coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. Over time, plaque can cause the coronary arteries to narrow and harden, restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. If blood flow to the heart is reduced, angina (chest pain) can occur. If the blockage results in blood flow to the heart being cut off, the result is a heart attack. That’s why LDL cholesterol is considered “bad” and should be kept in the range your physician recommends.

Conversely, HDL is considered “good cholesterol” – the higher it is, the better. HDL cholesterol transports cholesterol and fat through your blood and to your liver, so it can be eliminated from the body.

It’s important to get a lipid screening every five years – or more frequently, if your physician recommends it – to check your cholesterol levels. This simple blood test will measure your cholesterol levels, as well as triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the blood. Triglycerides can also be harmful to cardiovascular health if they are too high.

If your LDL levels are elevated, you can often bring them down by making dietary adjustments. Eating less saturated fat, which is the type of fat found in meat and dairy, can help improve cholesterol levels. Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, is found in many processed baked goods, such as cookies and doughnuts, as well as some fried foods. Trans fats are considered to be the worst type of fat to consume, as they raise LDL cholesterol while reducing HDL levels. It’s recommended that people avoid consuming trans fats in all cases.

In addition to dietary adjustments, HDL levels can be elevated through regular exercise, which has numerous heart health benefits. If diet and exercise alone are not sufficient to bring cholesterol levels into a healthy range, your physician may prescribe a medication which can help improve your cholesterol levels.

Keep Blood Sugar in Check

Blood sugar, or glucose, is a key source of energy for the human body. It’s important blood sugar levels not be too high, though. If blood sugar levels remain elevated for a sustained period of time, a person is at risk of developing diabetes, a major cause of heart disease and a host of other health problems.

There are several things that can be done to improve blood sugar levels and maintain them at healthy levels. Some foods should be avoided or eaten only in moderation. This includes certain carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, and rice, which can cause blood sugar levels to rise. Sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit drinks, can cause blood sugar levels to spike. Getting regular exercise and remaining hydrated are also important keys to keeping blood sugar levels in check.

Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the measurement of the force of blood pressing against the arteries. A blood pressure reading always includes two numbers:

  • Systolic (upper number): when the heart beats
  • Diastolic (lower number): when the heart is resting, in between beats

A normal blood pressure reading is considered to be lower than 120/80. Blood pressure readings between 120-139 over 80-89 are considered to be in the pre-hypertension range, while blood pressure of 140/90 or higher is classified as hypertension, also known as high blood pressure.

High blood pressure can damage the arteries over time. It also causes the heart to work harder to pump blood, causing extra strain and possible damage to the heart. The root cause of high blood pressure is usually unknown, as it is often a condition that develops gradually as people age. However, there are known risk factors that contribute to high blood pressure, including too much salt and too little potassium in a diet, as well as excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use. As with cholesterol, if diet and exercise are insufficient to bring blood pressure into a normal range, your physician may prescribe medication to help manage hypertension.

Manage Stress

Managing stress is an important part of maintaining heart health and overall health. “Everyone experiences stress in their lives,” says OB/GYN Dr. Robert Zwernemann. “Whether you’re a corporate CEO or a stay-at-home parent, you experience stress. The key is in how you handle it.” Not only can sustained, high stress levels cause blood pressure to increase, but stress causes problems when it induces people to cope by picking up (or resuming) an unhealthy habit, such as eating junk food, not making time to exercise, drinking too much or smoking.

Stress can be managed – and your overall health improved – by getting regular exercise that you find enjoyable, getting enough sleep and finding the right balance in life which allows you to relax or unwind.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the keys to protecting your heart. People who are overweight or obese are at greater risk of heart disease and numerous causes of heart disease, including diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Additionally, carrying around extra pounds forces our hearts to work harder to plump blood throughout the body.

“There really isn’t any magic trick to losing weight – we have to burn more calories than we consume. I encourage my patients to avoid fad diets or products that promise dramatic weight loss in a short period of time,” says Dr. Elisabeth Wagner, an OB/GYN. “The most effective and long-lasting weight loss occurs when it’s gradual – one or two pounds a week – and is achieved through a balanced diet and regular exercise.

Get Active

“One of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself is exercise regularly,” according to OB/GYN Dr. Lori Atkins. “Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, five to seven days a week improves heart health and reduces the risk of heart disease.”

Exercise helps the heart in two really important ways. First, exercise such as walking, bicycling, running or swimming causes the heart rate to rise. As the heart beats faster to pump blood, the heart muscle is strengthened. So when you hear someone talk about doing “cardio” exercise, that’s why: those are exercises that provide a workout for the heart.

Second, exercise burns calories. “Regular exercise, along with a healthy diet, are the keys to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight,” says Dr. John Birbari, a surgeon. “And as we know, a healthy weight can directly affect blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, reducing the risk of heart disease.”

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before beginning any exercise routine, visit with your physician first to ensure that exercise is safe for you. Exercising with an undetected, underlying health condition can result in serious injury, illness or death.

Eat Healthy

By now, you know that what we eat matters a lot to our hearts. Diet affects our cholesterol levels, our risk of diabetes, our blood pressure, and of course, our weight. All of these factors, in turn, affect our risk of heart disease.

“We have the ability to greatly impact our overall health and specifically our heart health by what we eat and what we avoid or consume only in moderation,” says Dr. Darien Bradford, a Cardiothoracic Surgeon.

In general, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsalted nuts, lean meat and fish are heart-friendly foods that promote a healthy body weight and overall health.

Foods that should be avoided or eaten only in moderation include fatty meats, processed meats (such as hot dogs), fried foods and food with high amounts of salt or sugar. Additionally, alcohol should be consumed only in moderation; up to one drink per day for women and two for men.

Not only is it important to watch what we are eating, it’s also necessary to be mindful of how much we’re consuming. “In our Super-Size-Me culture, portion control has gotten out of control,” say Dr. Jeremy Parcells, a Bariatric and General Surgeon. “A few years ago I decided that I needed to get healthier and lose some weight. One of the components of healthy eating was to start weighing and/or measuring my portions to figure out how much I was consuming. I was stunned to learn that I was regularly consuming well over 1,000 calories at dinner in large part due to a lack of portion control.”

One More Thing…

This one may go without saying, but just in case: don’t smoke. And if you do smoke, quit as soon as possible.

Smoking is one of the worst possible things you can do to your heart: it raises blood pressure, can cause diabetes, increases triglycerides and constricts blood vessels. Smoking causes one out of every five deaths in the United States each year. If you smoke, visit with your doctor about ways you can get help quitting.

Healthy Living = Healthier Heart

American Heart Month is a great time to take stock of your heart health. Start with a visit to your physician and make sure your cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure are OK. If they need improving, your doctor will help put you on the right path. Remember, so much of what impacts our hearts can be directly affected by what we eat and the amount of exercise we get – that gives us a lot of control over how healthy our hearts are.

This article contains information sourced from:

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health

The Mayo Clinic

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Read Texas Health Care’s 2015 American Heart Month feature to find out more about the types of heart disease, risk factors and treatment.

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