From Dr. Jennifer Haythe, M.D. Cardiologist for the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care and Co-Director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center.
February is the month of red, the month of love, and fittingly – Heart Month. It is also the month toward the end of the deep dark winter, when most people have been staying warm inside, eating robustly and exercising less. As a cardiologist I spend my life taking care of hearts. People ask me every day what they can do to prevent a heart attack and be heart-healthy. I always say the same thing – awareness and education, simple changes, and all things in moderation. Read below for my head-to-toe guide on heart disease….
How to prevent a heart attack:
Heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women in this country, but it is also treatable and many risk factors are modifiable. Start by exercising and giving up that couch sitting, sedentary lifestyle. It is as simple as vigorous walking 4-5 times per week. Start with 20 minutes per day and move up to 45 minutes per day. Try a workout app for your phone (I like C25K for beginners) or listen to a podcast while you walk (Serial, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History) instead of watching TV in bed. You don’t’ have to become a workout fanatic to have a healthy heart – just a commitment to get moving and get your heart rate up! You won’t believe how good you will feel as you get stronger and your endurance builds!
In this country, food is all around us in enormous portions and cooked in saturated fats and sugars. To prevent heart disease, adopt a consistent, healthy diet. You don’t have to starve yourself or limit yourself to single food groups. Just stick to the Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Replace butter with olive oil and spices instead of salt. Consume more fish and white meats (limit red meat to 1-2x per month) and try to make a habit of skipping dessert. Just say no to chips, fried foods, fast food, processed foods. Once you start eating healthier, you will find yourself disgusted by the fast foods you used to eat.
See your doctor at least once a year to check your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. All three conditions can initially be treated by diet and exercise, and then medication if need be. Don’t let these silent killers take a toll on your body. Take control and keep heart disease away. Please stop smoking if you haven’t already – quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your body: heart, lungs, skin, hair, brain, muscles etc!
The connection between the mind and the heart is just starting to be uncovered. More and more data suggests that stress plays a role in the development of heart disease possibly through a pro-inflammatory possibly hormonal mechanism. Besides exercise, try to incorporate stress reduction techniques into your life. Meditation can be done easily in the privacy of your home, either by just sitting quietly and listening to soothing music or by trying a guided meditation available on your phone. If you prefer, try yoga which is a great way to lower blood pressure and improve balance and core strength.
Signs you may be having a heart attack or have heart disease:
To help yourself or your loved ones, it is essential that you know the signs and symptoms of heart disease so that you can get help quickly and not delay.
The most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is chest pain or discomfort usually felt at the mid to left chest and can radiate down the left arm or into the jaw. The pain is often like a dull pressure or heaviness though it can also be sharp. Other symptoms to look out for are shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, nausea, and lightheadedness. Women are more likely to have atypical symptoms like stomach discomfort mistaken for indigestion, dizziness, and fatigue.
But not all heart disease is a heart attack. A problem with a heart valve can manifest as shortness of breath or palpitations. Heart failure, when the heart’s pumping ability is reduced, can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling of the legs and abdomen, decreased exercise tolerance, palpitations and lightheadedness.
If you feel any of these symptoms or the sense that something just isn’t right go to the nearest Emergency Room. Denial is a powerful thing but the longer you wait, the more your heart may be suffering. Prompt care by a medical team can minimize damage done to the heart during a heart attack.
By adopting a healthy lifestyle, seeing your doctor regularly, and educating yourself about the signs and symptoms of heart disease you are taking the most important steps toward living a long healthy life.