Living Columns & Blogs

Easy steps to a healthier heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for one in four deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centre County averages 391 deaths due to heart disease each year per 100,000 people.

Some risk factors for heart disease can’t be changed, such as a person’s age, gender, race and family history. For example, a 55-year-old African-American man whose father suffered a stroke at age 60 is more likely to have heart disease than a 35-year-old white woman with no family history of heart problems. However, simple lifestyle changes can lower many individuals’ chances of developing heart disease and improve lifelong health.

What is heart disease?

When heart disease is mentioned, many Americans immediately think of heart attack. Cardiovascular disease actually encompasses a wide range of conditions involving the heart and blood vessels, including stroke, high blood pressure, angina, rheumatic heart disease — and yes, heart attack. For all these conditions, the risk increases for people who:

▪ Have high blood pressure

▪ Have high blood cholesterol

▪ Smoke

▪ Are overweight or obese

▪ Are physically inactive

▪ Eat an unhealthy diet

Each of these risk factors can be lessened — or even eliminated — by making one or more of three important lifestyle changes:

▪ Stop smoking. This will halt the chemical damage to the heart and blood vessels, increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, and make it easier for the heart to do its job. Just 20 minutes after finishing a cigarette, a smoker’s heart rate and blood pressure begin to drop.

▪ Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days. Activity should be at least moderate-level for heart health, meaning breathing speeds up and a light sweat develops after about 10 minutes. Different activities during the day can contribute to the 30-minute total, including everyday activities such as climbing stairs, dancing or heavy gardening.

▪ Eat a heart-healthy diet. Try to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and less salt, sugar and fat, especially saturated and trans fats. Among the popular diets that follow these guidelines are the Mediterranean diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet and various plant-based diets.

If these measures seem overwhelming, start with small steps. No amount of smoking is safe, but for a person who is not ready to quit altogether, smoking less is better than making no change at all. A slow walk around the block is healthier than sitting and watching TV. Eating a piece of fruit instead of a bag of chips every afternoon can lead to modest weight loss and more energy. Talk with a family physician for advice on making heart-healthy lifestyle changes that are safe and effective.

When to call 911

All adults, regardless of whether they are at high risk of heart disease, should be aware of the symptoms of a heart emergency. These can include:

▪ Pain, pressure or discomfort in the center of the chest, usually lasting more than a few minutes

▪ Radiation of pain into the jaw, arms, back, neck or stomach

▪ Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain

▪ Nausea and vomiting

▪ Lightheadedness or fainting

▪ Breaking out into a cold sweat

If a heart attack is suspected, call 911 immediately.

Other symptoms can be clues that heart disease is developing and should be brought to the attention of the family physician as soon as possible. For example, if a person is developing chest pain or any symptoms of heart disease when going up stairs or doing activities they usually do, that could be a sign heart disease is developing.

The earlier that heart disease is detected, the easier it is to treat, so it’s important to be proactive in talking with a doctor about any concerns. Plus, even before symptoms arise, lifestyle changes can lower a person’s risk of heart disease. Quitting tobacco, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet are good choices for everyone, regardless of risk factors.

Nicki Vithalani, M.D., practices in the Penn State Health Family and Community Medicine Residency Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center. The program is part of the University Park Regional Campus of the Penn State College of Medicine.

If you go

What: Healthier Moshannon Valley’s free talk on heart disease prevention

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 20

Where: Moshannon Valley YMCA, 113 N. 14th St., Philipsburg

Info: Register for the event by calling 342-0889