I attended a conference a few years ago hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services called "Steps to a Healthier U.S."
The conference showcased some of the nation's leading experts on the prevention of disease through promotion of healthier lifestyles. There was discussion about shifting our nation's health care resources toward proven preventive strategies.
There is perhaps no area of medicine in which the message of prevention is more important than that of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009, more than 1.2 million Americans will experience a heart attack.
Why is heart disease so common in our country?
For many of us, the answer can be found in the refrigerator and in the mirror. Our high-calorie, high-fat western diet and the resultant staggering rate of obesity contribute to the premature aging of our cardiovascular systems. Combined with inactivity and tobacco use, lifestyle and its related chronic health conditions are the leading risks for heart disease.
The prevention of heart disease begins with a commitment to a healthful lifestyle. A healthful diet should focus on the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and reduction of salt, saturated fat and cholesterol as well as reducing overall calorie intake. These changes not only have direct heart benefits, but they can both prevent or help control common conditions that lead to heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Regular aerobic physical activity conditions the heart for improved performance. Yet physical activity also has been shown to lower blood pressure, help maintain a healthful weight and can even delay the onset of diabetes among those at highest risk. Physical activity doesn't require equipment or even a trip to the gym. Brisk walking 30 minutes daily is among the best workout programs when it comes to heart health.
Maintenance of a healthful weight through a combination of diet and exercise is beneficial to the heart. Body mass index - or BMI, a measure of weight for height - should ideally be between 18 and 24.9. Measurement of BMI can be easily accomplished through use of any of a number of online BMI calculators.
Excess alcohol consumption has been implicated in heart disease, heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure and should be avoided. Tobacco cessation is the single most effective means to reduce heart disease risk among smokers.
Many of the strongest risk factors for heart disease are "silent" chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. These conditions may be present for years without producing obvious symptoms. Screening for these conditions therefore is essential among adults. Blood pressure should be checked at least yearly and testing cholesterol levels is recommended at least every five years. For those with elevated blood pressure or cholesterol, control of these conditions with lifestyle modification or medication has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a
board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Southern Ute Health Center in Ignacio.