Healthy lifestyle key to preventing heart disease

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*This story originally appeared in The Budget’s Feb. 8, 2017 Local Edition

By Stacey Carmany
The Budget

February is American Heart Health Month, a time for raising awareness about the silent killer known as heart disease and emphasizing the importance of adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., claiming an estimated 610,000 lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease accounts for one in every four deaths in the U.S. “It’s the number one killer of women, even more than breast cancer,” said Brittany Cochenour, a registered nurse and community health and wellness coordinator at Union Hospital. “It’s a problem nationwide and in our own community.”

The term heart disease actually encompasses a wide variety of diseases of the heart and blood vessels including heart rhythm disorders and congenital heart defects, however, the most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease, or CAD. This occurs when plaque, composed of cholesterol and other substances, begins to build up on the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and body. Over time, that buildup can cause the arteries to narrow, limiting the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. If left untreated, CAD can lead to a heart attack or heart failure.

She noted that those most at risk for heart disease are individuals who are overweight, are smokers, have a family history of heart disease and/or lead a sedentary lifestyle. There are some things people can do to lower their risk of CAD. Cochenour said one of the biggest things that people can do is to modify their diet.

Cochenour said the American Heart Association recommends that individuals adopt a heart-healthy diet that incorporates a variety of fruits and vegetables and plenty of whole grains along with low-fat dairy products and lean meats such as skinless poultry and fish. The AHA also recommends avoiding or limiting the intake of red meat, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and foods that are high in saturated and trans fats.

Cochenour said another big thing that people can do to reduce their risk of heart disease is to be more active. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. “It’s really just up to the person’s preference,” Cochenour said. “We recommend that you pick something you enjoy doing. Don’t do something you’re not going to like because if you don’t enjoy it, you’re less likely to stick with it.” For some, that could include activities like swimming, yoga or walking.

Stress is another major risk factor for heart disease. Cochenour said women in particular often lead very stressful lives. She recommends women to take some time for themselves each day to unwind. That might include an activity such as meditating or simply curling up with a good book.

Cochenour also emphasized the importance of patients staying “plugged in” with their doctors and monitoring their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Patients should also be sure to consult with their family physician before taking any dietary supplements. “I think a lot of people try to self-medicate with things

like heart health supplements or baby aspirin,” she explained. “That should always be done under the direction of a doctor because those things can interact with other medications.”

Both men and women should also be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack. The five major symptoms of a heart attack for both sexes are pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back; feeling weak, lightheaded, or faint; chest pain or discomfort; pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder; and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. Approximately two out of every three people who have heart attacks experience chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue a few days or weeks before the attack.

A heart attack does not always have obvious symptoms, however. For women, Cochenour said the symptoms can mimic those of other conditions. Symptoms of a heart attack in women includes things like heartburn, decreased appetite and fatigue. “If women are experiencing these symptoms, they should definitely call their doctor,” she said.

Sometimes a heart attack can occur without any warning signs or symptoms, a medical condition known as silent ischemia. AHA experts advise all individuals to know their risk factors and be aware of their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

To learn more about heart disease, check out