Heart disease is the leading cause of disability and death in the United States. Nearly every family has been touched by this chronic illness. My own grandfathers death from a heart attack served as my initial motivation to seek a career in medicine.
While tremendous gains have been made in the treatment of heart disease, it has not been conquered in the way that certain infectious diseases and even certain types of cancer have been. One reason is that heart disease, and specifically coronary artery disease, has so many variables. Another important reason is that the leading factor in reducing the burden of heart disease, prevention, requires a change in some of our most deeply rooted behaviors.
Remember that coronary artery disease and its related conditions such as stroke and peripheral vascular disease often result from the cumulative effects of certain risk factors. Among these are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus and smoking. Each of these risk factors themselves are impacted by lifestyle decisions. In the case of the first three, genetic variables play a role, too.
Considerable risk reduction for vascular diseases can be accomplished for most people through preventive lifestyle modifications. These changes in behavior do not necessarily involve medical intervention in the form of procedures or drugs.
Foremost among the lifestyle variables for heart disease is diet. It is well-known that a diet rich in sodium, sugar and saturated fat directly or indirectly increases heart disease risk. Meanwhile, a diet rich in fiber, low in sodium and low in refined sugar and animal fats is healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish, may provide some protective benefit. Controlling total calories can help in weight management and further reduce the risk for both diabetes and heart disease.
Perhaps equally important with diet is the practice of regular physical activity. The cardiovascular system generally benefits from conditioning. The type of conditioning that is most beneficial for the heart is aerobic activity. This is the kind of exercise that increases both heart and breathing rate. The recommended duration of exercise is at least 15 minutes and preferably 30 minutes daily for adults.
Examples of heart healthy activity include brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and a host of other outdoor and indoor activities. If you dont currently exercise and you have a chronic health condition, especially heart disease, it would be wise to consult with your doctor first about how to safely get started.
Lastly, cigarette smoking, while on the wane in American culture, nevertheless continues to be a major risk factor for heart disease. The single most important thing a smoker can do to decrease heart disease risk is to stop period. Resources like the Quitline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) provide free counseling and nicotine replacement paid for by, you guessed it, your cigarette tax dollars. Heres a chance to get some of that money back and live a healthier life. Your heart will thank you.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.