From Valentine’s Day to American Heart Month, February is about matters of the heart. And with recent research revealing that nearly half of all Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease, now is the perfect time to learn more about heart health.
Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term, encompassing a wide range of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. All heart disease is under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease, as well as diseases of the blood vessels, problems with heart rhythm, and congenital heart disorders that a person is born with. The most common type of cardiovascular disease in the United States is coronary artery disease.
The grim reality is that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing over 600,000 people a year. Another way of putting this is that one in four deaths is caused by heart disease. But the silver lining of this very dark cloud is that many of these deaths could be prevented with simple lifestyle adjustments.
When seeing patients at a high risk of cardiovascular diseases, healthcare professionals tend to prescribe medications like statins. Discussions about lifestyle changes are often reserved for lower-risk patients, on the assumption that higher-risk patients are beyond the point where lifestyle changes could help. Lifestyle changes benefit all patients, not just low-risk ones. Even for patients at a high risk of cardiovascular disease, lifestyle changes halve their risk of a coronary event—such as having a heart attack or needing a bypass procedure—over a 10 year period.
This February, have a heart-to-heart with your patients about the small lifestyle changes that fight cardiovascular disease, helping them live longer and healthier lives. Here are some points to discuss with your patients.
Quit smoking. Smoking cessation is difficult, but it reaps huge rewards for the cardiovascular system—not to mention the lungs. If your patients smoke, stopping is crucial for their health. Don’t underestimate how seriously patients take your advice. Guidance from health care professionals is a big reason people try to quit smoking.
Exercise. Researchers recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. This breaks down to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. The idea of daily exercise can be daunting, but exercise doesn’t have to mean running or weightlifting. Any kind of movement helps, and walking, dancing, gardening, and yoga are all excellent for the heart.
Eat a heart-healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet includes whole-grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and legumes, poultry and fish, and a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Patients should limit their intake of sodium, saturated fat, trans fats, and sweetened beverages. A fantastic resource to help your patients is Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which has information on healthy eating.
Try to reach or maintain a healthy weight. Obesity elevates a person’s risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Make sure, though, that your patients are pursuing weight loss in a healthy way. Trendy diets are not the answer—the best way to lose weight is with physical activity, nutritious and healthy meal choices, and counting calories.
Get screened for cardiovascular health. All adults should have a blood pressure test performed at least once every 2 years. At least once every 5 years, your patients should have their cholesterol checked. As diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes screening may be a good option as well. Additionally, adults over age 70, or adults over age 50 who smoke or have diabetes, should have their ankle brachial index tested. The ankle brachial index, which measures blood flow in the legs and feet, can diagnose peripheral arterial disease (PAD). As many as 1 in 5 adults over age 60 have PAD, a lesser-known type of cardiovascular disease.
So as we celebrate Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month this February, remember to have a heart-to-heart with your patients about cardiovascular health. Small changes can lead to big improvements and ultimately, a longer and healthier life.