Control over heart disease

Chris Dolan

You may think that you have little or no control over your health when it comes to heart disease, but the truth is that there are several ways to reduce your risk of developing heart disease and a host of other chronic ailments that often go hand-in-hand. According to the Center for Disease Control:

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2015 were in men.1

About 630,000 Americans die from heart disease each year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.1

Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing about 366,000 people in 2015.1

In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. Each minute, more than one person in the United States dies from a heart disease-related event.2

Heart disease costs the United States about $200 billion each year.1 This total includes the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Multiple Cause of Death 1999-2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database released in December 2016. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at

Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2014. Cdc-pdf[PDF-4.4M] National vital statistics reports. 2016;65(5).

Here are a few things you can do to decrease your risk of developing heart disease:

1. Eat well

Aim to make your meals as healthful and nutritious as possible and reduce your risk for heart disease by eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and complex whole grains. Examples of heart-healthy food plans include the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan, the Mediterranean diet, and adopting a whole- food plant-based eating (WFPB) plan.

The Standard American Diet is just that…SAD! In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee provided an in-depth look at what Americans were eating and issued its recommendations on what Americans should be eating. The 571-page report states that “the quality of the diets currently consumed by the U.S. population is suboptimal overall and has major adverse health consequences.” Their official recommendations for a “healthy dietary pattern” put vegetables, fruits, and whole grains at the very top the list and pushed red and processed meats to the very bottom. The committee found a large gap between a healthy diet and the standard American diet: “On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, and high in sodium, calories, saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars.”

Eating 5-10 servings of various types of fruits and vegetables not only can help prevent heart disease, but also may help improve your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diabetic symptoms.

2. Exercise and maintain a healthy weight

You don’t have to sling huge dumbbells around or run marathons to acquire the type and amount of activity that strengthens your muscles and heart. Start off with body weight exercises or light hand weights. Moderate cardiovascular exercise, for as little as 30-minutes a day, should be part of your heart health regimen, particularly if you’re carrying around a few extra pounds and/or heart disease runs in your family.

Start by taking a walk each day (i.e., before work, on your lunch break, or after dinner) and work your way up to more strenuous exercise. However, even shorter amounts of exercise than these recommendations can offer heart benefits, so if you can’t meet those guidelines, don’t give up. You can even get the same health benefits if you break up your workout time into three 10-minute sessions on most days of the week. Remember that activities such as taking the stairs and walking the dog all count toward your total. You don’t have to exercise strenuously to achieve benefits, but you can see bigger benefits by increasing the intensity, duration, and frequency of your workouts.

Physical activity can help you control your weight and reduce your chances of developing other conditions that may put a strain on your heart, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Men are generally considered overweight if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches (101.6 centimeters, or cm). Women are generally overweight if their waist measurement is greater than 35 inches (88.9 cm).

Even a small weight loss can be beneficial. Reducing your weight by just 3 to 5 percent can help decrease your triglycerides and blood sugar (glucose), and reduce your risk of diabetes. Losing even more weight can help lower your blood pressure and blood cholesterol level.

3. Don’t smoke or use tobacco

Smoking or using tobacco of any kind is one of the most significant risk factors for developing heart disease. Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to narrowing of the arteries due to plaque buildup (atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis can ultimately lead to a heart attack. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke replaces some of the oxygen in your blood. This increases your blood pressure and heart rate by forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen.

When it comes to heart disease prevention, no amount of smoking is safe. But, the more you smoke, the greater your risk. Smokeless tobacco, low-tar, and low-nicotine cigarettes, and secondhand smoke also can be risky. Your risk of coronary heart disease significantly reduces one year after quitting smoking. Your risk of coronary heart disease drops almost to that of a nonsmoker in about 15 years. And no matter how long or how much you smoked, you’ll start reaping rewards as soon as you quit.

4. Take time out and give thanks

Put yourself in a “time-out” each day. This moment of me-time should be used to breathe, relax, and unwind, particularly if your life is stress-heavy. Some time to yourself can calm nerves and help decrease blood pressure. Take the time each day to be thankful for the positive aspects of your life–for instance, your home, your job, your family, a supportive partner, or a friend. Acknowledgment of your blessings will put you in a positive state of mind and banish the type of negativity, cynicism, anger, and bitterness that can contribute to stress, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

5. Get enough sleep

Sleep deprivation can do more than leave you yawning throughout the day; it can harm your health. People who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, and depression.

Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you wake up without your alarm clock and you feel refreshed, you’re getting enough sleep. But, if you’re constantly reaching for the snooze button and it’s a struggle to get out of bed, you need more sleep each night.

Make sleep a priority in your life. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it by going to bed and waking up at the same times each day. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet, so it’s easier to sleep.

6. Get regular health screenings

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels. But without testing for them, you probably won’t know whether you have these conditions. Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.

Blood pressure. Regular blood pressure screenings usually start in childhood. You should have a blood pressure test performed at least once every two years to screen for high blood pressure as a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, starting at age 18.

If you’re age 40 or older, or you’re between the ages of 18 and 39 with a high risk of high blood pressure, ask your doctor for a blood pressure reading every year. Optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Cholesterol levels. Adults should generally have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years starting at age 18. Earlier testing may be recommended if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of early-onset heart disease.

Diabetes screening. Since diabetes is a risk factor for developing heart disease, you may want to consider being screened for diabetes. Talk to your doctor about when you should have a fasting blood sugar test or hemoglobin A1C test to check for diabetes.

Depending on your risk factors, such as being overweight or having a family history of diabetes, your doctor may recommend early screening for diabetes. If your weight is normal and you don’t have other risk factors for type 2 diabetes, the American Diabetes Association recommends starting screening at age 45 and then retesting every three years.

If you have a condition such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, your doctor may prescribe medications and recommend lifestyle changes. Make sure to take your medications as your doctor prescribes and follow a healthy lifestyle plan.

Eating a healthier diet, increasing physical activity, quitting smoking, managing stress, and sleeping well can help decrease your risk of heart disease and improve your quality of life. Ask your health care team help you make these lifestyle changes and increase your chances of living a heart-healthy life.

Chris Dolan is Wellness Director at the Warren County YMCA (visit or email