Here’s a fact that we should all take to heart:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.
Now that’s a wake-up call, and all the more reason you should read on and reap the rewards of those in the know.
When it comes to heart health, there are lots of misconceptions and somewhat dated info circulating around the interweb. That’s why we decided to catch up with Payal Kohli, MD, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colorado, to find out what you really need to know and do to keep your heart healthy and your risk for disease at its lowest.
Q: What are some of the most common things people get wrong about heart health?
A: Well for starters, most people are confused about what a heart attack really is. Many think it’s when your heart stops beating or beats erratically. A heart attack, in its simplest definition, is damage to the heart muscle. And it’s usually caused by a blocked artery that prevents blood from flowing and circulating in an area of the heart that needs it.
Q: What factors should people use to gauge their risk for heart disease or heart attack?
A: Patients should absolutely keep tabs on their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and understand their family history as all of these things play an important role in understanding the risk to a patient’s heart. Yet, there are other risk factors that people might not know about. For example, women who’ve had pregnancy complications like preeclampsia or gestational diabetes might have a higher risk for heart disease later in life. The reason for this is because pregnancy puts enormous strain on the heart and the blood vessels. If there are issues while pregnant, it becomes an indicator that these women should monitor their heart health down the road.
Q: Is there any new research or recommended guidelines that people should know about that might change how they’re taking care of their heart?
A: Studies now show that having moderately elevated cholesterol levels for a number of years is just as unhealthy as having high cholesterol levels for a short period of time. So talk to your doctor about even slightly elevated numbers, so together you can keep an eye on what steps you can take to reduce your risk. And emerging data suggests that women who discover they have calcium deposits in their breasts after having their annual screening mammogram may also develop calcium deposits around their heart years later, which could increase their risk for a coronary event.
Q: There are so many popular diets out there from keto, paleo and Whole30. Is there one diet you’d recommend that’s best for heart health?
A: My perspective is that many of these diets are hard to maintain over time, which is why they aren’t on my list of recommendations for my patients. Evidence-based diets that have proven to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol are the ones that support heart health best. The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This eating plan emphasizes foods that are lower in sodium as well as foods that are rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium — nutrients that help control and lower high blood pressure. The other diet I tout is the Mediterranean diet, a plant-based regimen that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Instead of cooking with butter, it uses healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil and uses herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods. In my opinion, the best diet has some of everything. Think of filling your plate with 50% veggies, 25% lean protein and 25% complex carbs. And of course, portion control is key to maintaining a healthy weight.
Q: How resilient is the heart, especially after a heart attack?
A: A lot of people think that once they have a heart attack or heart surgery that they can’t adopt an intensive exercise program or they’re doomed for the rest of their lives. Heart disease or having a heart attack is no doubt scary. Yet, the heart has an amazing ability to heal itself, either on its own or after some sort of intervention. People should feel empowered. Consider a heart attack a wake-up call. Patients are absolutely capable of managing their risk factors and turning their heart health around. What I tell my patients and what I hope people realize is that heart disease is preventable. It just takes the right combination of eating right, exercising regularly and preventive care to ensure your heart beats for many years to come.
Q: What do you tell your patients when it comes to monitoring their heart health?
A: There’s an acronym that I tell my patients to follow: ABCDE.
A = Aspirin. Not everyone should take aspirin daily, but it definitely benefits some people to start an aspirin regimen, so patients should talk to their doctor to see if it’s right for them.
B = Blood pressure. A healthy blood pressure should be close to 120/80. If the top number, the systolic blood pressure, climbs between 120-130 it should be flagged because once you hit 130>, patients have stage 1 hypertension. Both patients and doctors should keep a close eye on BP readings at every visit and treat accordingly.
C = Cholesterol. The goal is to keep keep LDL, the “bad” cholesterol below 100. Triglycerides should be less than 150, while HDL, the “good” cholesterol should be 60 or higher.
D = Diabetes. There’s a spectrum of heart risk with diabetes. It’s all about the level of glucose or sugar in your bloodstream. The higher your A1C numbers, a measurement of glucose in the blood, the higher your risk for diabetes and heart issues. An A1C level below 5.7 percent is considered normal. An A1C between 5.7 and 6.4 percent signals prediabetes. Type 2 diabetes is diagnosed when the A1C is over 6.5 percent.
E = Exercise. I tell my patients to strive for 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise a week. This means engaging in an activity that gets the heart rate up and makes you break a sweat. This is absolutely more intense than walking the dog, but if you’re so short of breath that you can’t carry on a short conversation, then you’re perhaps pushing yourself too hard.
After talking with Dr. Kohli, we’re convinced that the more people know, the better they can take care of their hearts. We encourage you to talk with your primary care doctor about steps you can take to keep your heart in tip-top shape and ticking for many years to come. Be sure to ask your doc if and when you should see a heart specialist based on your family history, risk factors or your current health. Do you have any heart health stories you’d like to share? Maybe an inspiring recovery story or tips about how to fit in the recommended amount of exercise into your routine? Share below!