The statistics on heart disease and heart attacks are staggering. Every year about 785,000 Americans have their first coronary attack, and it remains the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S.
Another 470,000 Americans will have a recurrence or another attack. Some of the most important risk factors for heart disease are age, gender, ethnicity, and a history of diabetes, cholesterol abnormalities, or smoking.
Making healthy lifestyle choices is important for decreasing your cardiovascular risks.
What Is a Heart Attack?
Your heart muscle needs oxygen and nutrients to work as it should. A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) usually occurs when blood flow to the heart is suddenly cut off. When this happens, the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood. In just a short period of time, part of the heart can be damaged or die. That’s why immediate care is critical. It can spare your heart and save your life. If you think you are having a heart attack, dial 9-1-1 immediately.
A heart attack happens when the atherosclerotic plaque ruptures and causes a blood clot to form. The clot blocks the blood flow in the artery, causing the surrounding heart muscle to die.
What Are Risk Factors for a Heart Attack?
Most heart attacks are due to coronary artery disease. Risk factors for coronary heart disease and heart attack include:
- Having high blood pressure
- Having high cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Eating a diet that is high in fat and sodium
- Not exercising regularly
- High blood sugar due to insulin resistance or diabetes
Many of the above risk factors occur together, which can make a heart attack even more likely. Other factors that have been linked to heart attack, but are less in your control include:
- Age—generally after 45 for men and 55 for women
- Family history of early heart disease
Preventing a heart attack begins with healthy lifestyle changes that can be implemented at the personal level and also with the rest of your family and friends.
Here are five shifts to make today:
- Stop smoking and avoid breathing secondhand smoke. Tobacco chemicals can damage your blood cells and increase your risk of coronary heart disease. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help reverse the damage and reduce the heart attack risk. Talk to you doctor about various options to help you quit smoking.
- Eat a healthy diet. Several studies have looked at various diets and diet plans. Current nutritional guidelines include two especially useful heart healthy diets
- The Mediterranean diet: Includes fresh fruits and vegetables, high-fiber foods, whole grains, legumes (including peas, beans and peanuts), fish and olive oil.
- The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet: The DASH diet is a balanced eating plan that focuses on eating fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, protein-rich foods and low-fat or nonfat dairy. It is often recommended to help treat or prevent high blood pressure (hypertension) and stresses limiting the amount of sodium you consume each day to about a teaspoon of salt (about 2,300 mg). But certain people—those with high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease or if you are older than 50—should aim for 1,500 mg or less.
- Exercise. Exercise provides multiple health benefits to you and your heart. It strengthens the heart muscle as well as other muscles in the body. The additional activity can help you maintain or lose weight, which can put less stress on the heart. Exercise reduces stress and can reduce risk factors of coronary heart disease. If you’re new or returning to exercise, check with your doctor to determine what types of exercise you can do safely.
- Sleep is an often overlooked way to benefit your heart. The American Heart Association said that older women who did not get enough sleep on a regular basis were more likely to have poor cardiovascular health. Sleeping less than six hours per night or having an irregular sleep pattern (versus the recommended seven to nine hours per night) is linked to high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and diabetes, the association’s statement said.
- Relaxing and participating in social activities can help your heart. Enjoying yourself, whether meditating, spending time on a hobby or being with friends can decrease stress and help reduce blood pressure. In addition, by decreasing stress, you may avoid behaviors (smoking, drinking, stress eating) that also increase risk factors for a heart attack
While these changes can certainly make a difference in your risks for a heart attack, there is more you can do to lower or maintain your weight, control diabetes, and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.
Talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about your specific risks. Until then, making these five changes can give you an immediate start to a healthier lifestyle.