How to Reduce Your Risk of a Heart Attack
Heart attacks are the number one killer of both men and women each year in the United States. A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when a blood clot develops in one the blood vessels (coronary arteries) that lead to the heart. This blockage can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle. A heart attack is not the same thing as cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops. Symptoms of a heart attack vary and may include: pressure, pain, or tightness in the heart, feeling of indigestion, heartburn, or abdominal pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, lightheadedness, sweating, feelings of anxiety, and trouble sleeping.
Heart attacks can be caused by numerous factors. The most common cause is a build-up of plaque in the arteries, called atherosclerosis. Plaque is a sticky substance that originates from cholesterol and other substances. When this build- up causes the coronary artery to narrow, it leads to a condition called coronary artery disease. The plaque that is built up in the arteries can rupture and spill into the bloodstream causing a clot, which can block the flow of blood to the heart. Other causes of heart attacks include spasms in the coronary artery, commonly caused by drugs like cocaine, tears in the artery, and small blood clots and tumors.
There are many risk factors for a heart attack that can be decreased or eliminated through dietary modification and exercise. Common risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, family history of heart attack, lack of physical activity, obesity, stress, illegal drug use, and a history of preeclampsia. Males over the age of 45 are also at higher risk.
Adopting a heart healthy diet is the most important thing you can do to prevent a heart attack. This includes eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats. The diet should be low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars, and high in protein antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Avoid processed foods and eat fish two times per week to get omega-3 fatty acids. Take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement if you cannot consume enough fish.
Exercise is another important factor to minimize your risk of having a heart attack. The heart is a muscle and gets stronger through exercise. Find something you enjoy, develop a routine, and do it regularly. Adequate sleep, which is about 8 hours per night, has also been shown to positively effect your blood pressure and your heart.
To further decrease your risk of a heart attack, it is important to decrease your LDL cholesterol. This can be lowered through exercise, cessation of smoking, and a healthy diet low in fat and high in fiber. It is also important to lower your blood pressure through a low salt-low fat diet, decreased alcohol intake, exercising, and smoking cessation. When dietary interventions are not enough, prescription medications such as statins and diuretics can be used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure respectively.
The key to heart health is diet and exercise. February is heart health month, the perfect time to start your heart-healthy diet and exercise program.