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Health Matters: Follow These Eight Steps to Stay Heart Healthy

By Bipinpreet S. Nagra, MD

Approximately every 40 seconds, someone in the United States will have a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.

But while heart attacks are common, many are preventable.

With American Heart Month coming up in February, now is a good time to evaluate your heart health and talk with your doctor about any concerns you may have.

It is also a good time to review the American Heart Association’s following eight essential guidelines for living a heart healthy lifestyle and preventing heart disease.

1. Eat healthy. Enjoy a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins, skinless poultry, fish, and seafood. Limit sweetened drinks, alcohol, sodium, red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates like added sugars and processed grain foods, full-fat dairy products, highly processed foods, and tropical oils like coconut and palm. Avoid trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils.

2. Quit tobacco. Smoking is linked to about one third of all deaths from heart disease. Whether you plan to quit cold turkey or by stopping smoking gradually, a good first step is to set a quit date and commit to quitting on that day. Prepare to quit by planning how to deal with cravings and urges. Seek help from a medical professional if you can’t quit on your own.

3. Be more active. Adults should get a weekly total of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of both throughout the week. Examples of moderate aerobic activity include brisk walking, gardening, and doubles tennis. Examples of vigorous aerobic activity include hiking uphill, running, swimming laps, and jumping rope.

Additionally, adults should perform muscle strengthening exercises, like resistance or weight training, at least twice a week, and should get up and move throughout each day. Remember to consult with your physician before starting a new exercise routine.

4. Get healthy sleep.  Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Healthy sleep helps with cell repair, strengthens the immune system, improves mood and energy, supports brain function and lessens the risk of chronic disease. Studies show that too little or too much sleep are associated with heart disease. To help get a good night’s sleep, remove electronic devices from your bedroom and disconnect at least 30 minutes before hitting the pillow. Sticking to a sleep schedule and keeping your bedroom cool can also help you sleep better.
5. Manage weight. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, as indicated by your body mass index (BMI), can reduce your risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions. Body mass index is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height. Optimal BMI is 25. You can calculate your own BMI using an online tool or ask your doctor. You can manage your weight by controlling portions, eating healthy, and exercising.

6. Control cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that comes from food and your body. There are two different kinds of cholesterol, HDL (good) and LDL (bad). HDL helps keep LDL from sticking to artery walls and reduces plaque buildup. Adults aged 20 and older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years or more frequently if they are at high risk for heart disease. Cholesterol levels can be easily measured with a simple blood test. Cholesterol levels are considered normal when the total score (HDL and LDL combined) is 200 or less, with LDL under 100.

7. Manage blood sugar.  High blood sugar can lead to Type 2 diabetes, which increases the risk for heart disease. You can manage blood sugar by eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, and managing your weight. Adults should have their blood sugar tested as part of their routine physical exam. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, you will need to monitor your blood sugar more regularly. A normal blood sugar level is lower than 110 mg/dl (milligram/deciliter).

8. Manage blood pressure. Blood pressure is the amount of force your heart uses to pump blood throughout your body. It is recorded by two numbers. The top number (systolic) measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. The bottom number (diastolic) measures the pressure when the heart rests. A healthy blood pressure is lower than 120 over 80. Your doctor will measure your blood pressure as part of your routine physical exam. You can also monitor your own blood pressure through smart watches and other electronic devices. Just as with managing blood sugar and cholesterol, diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are key to managing blood pressure.

In addition to taking steps to stay heart healthy, it is important to know the signs of a heart attack and when to seek medical attention.

• Chest discomfort: Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

  • Shortness of breath: This may occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs of a heart attack may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 9-1-1 for emergency assistance.

Don’t wait until a heart attack occurs to get heart healthy. With these eight steps you can reduce your risk for heart disease and help stop a heart attack before it happens.

To find a physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health call 888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org

Bipinpreet S. Nagra, MD, is board certified in cardiovascular disease and is a member of the Medical Staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.

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