Changing your habits can make you healthier

A new report by the American Heart Association states that nearly half of U.S. adults are living with some form of heart or blood vessel disease. Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women.

High blood pressure and clogged arteries are common types of heart disease. These usually develop over time as a result of poor lifestyle choices and can result in the development of other serious conditions, leading to misery, sickness and death.

The good news is each of us has the power to improve our cardiovascular health. You just need to know your current health status, work with your doctor, and take steps toward living a healthier lifestyle.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is one of the most treatable conditions, and when addressed early, can prevent other problems from developing, such as strokes, kidney failure and heart failure.

According to AHA, poor diets, lack of exercise, smoking and other bad lifestyle habits cause 90 percent of high blood pressure. By changing these factors, you can dramatically lower your risk of developing high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is called “the silent killer” because it has few if any symptoms. It is recommended that all adults check their blood pressure once or twice a year. The newest guidelines say that a reading of 120/80 or less is considered normal, and 130/80 or above is considered high.

You can have your blood pressure taken by your doctor, at free community health screenings, with tests available at different pharmacies and markets, or by purchasing your own digital blood pressure device to use at home.

Being diagnosed with high blood pressure doesn’t mean you need to take medication right away. You should first make changes for a healthier lifestyle, such as being active at least 30 minutes a day, stopping smoking and shedding excess weight. Even those who are prescribed blood pressure medication should aim for healthier daily habits. Some find they no longer need to take blood pressure medicine once they have implemented healthier habits.

When your blood pressure stays within healthy ranges, you reduce the strain on your heart, arteries, and kidneys, which keeps you healthier longer.

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease, or clogged or hardened arteries, causes 43 percent of cardiovascular deaths in the U.S., according to the AHA report. Damaged and blocked arteries prevent blood from flowing properly to the heart. In the worst cases, blood flow is so weak that it causes a heart attack.

High blood cholesterol contributes to the development of plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that can form plaques that stick to the inner walls of the arteries. When you control your cholesterol, you are giving your arteries their best chance of remaining clear of blockages.

Hereditary traits can make some people more vulnerable to developing clogged arteries. For the rest of the population, lifestyle greatly affects risk for arterial disease.

The quality of the food you eat impacts your health and energy. It may take a bit more time and money to purchase fresh, healthy foods and to cook healthy, nutritious meals, but it is a lifetime investment that pays off with feeling better and having a well-functioning body.

The American Heart Association suggests choosing foods low in artery clogging saturated and trans fats. But you shouldn’t avoid all fats – good fats can actually help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Good fats are the unsaturated kind, found in certain cooking oils, fatty fish, seeds, nuts and certain vegetables like avocados.

As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetablesfiber-rich whole grains, nuts, beans and seeds, and try eating some meals during the week without meat. You should limit sugar-sweetened beverages, sodium and red meat. Avoid processed and fried foods, which tend to contain high levels of bad fats, salt and additives. Limiting alcohol use has also shown to be a factor in heart health.

Cholesterol levels can be measured with a simple blood test called a lipid panel. Several things are included in the test: overall cholesterol level, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Each of these factors plays a role in your risk for heart disease. Younger adults should have the test every five years and men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65 should have it every one to two years.

There are several cholesterol-lowering drugs available, and these should be combined with lifestyle changes.

You Can Do It

It may seem a daunting challenge to change how you eat, your activity levels, your weight and to quit using tobacco. However, no matter what your age or current health status, making healthy changes can help you feel better and live longer.

For more information about your heart health, and making lifestyle changes, talk with your primary care provider at Valley Health.

Reviewed by Brett Wellman, FNP-C, Chief Quality Officer and practicing Family Medicine provider for Valley Health Systems, Inc.