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February is American Heart Month. It’s a time where we turn our focus to the leading cause of death for Americans: heart disease.

“Heart disease” is a term that refers to a number of different heart conditions, but in the United States the most common one is coronary artery disease, which can lead to heart attack.

The good news is, coronary artery disease can often be controlled through lifestyle changes and medicine.

At CareWell Health, we’re all about making sure you’re treated like family – and that includes giving you the information and knowledge on how to show your heart some love so you can live healthier.

Heath Factors that Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease

  • High blood pressure. When the pressure of the blood gets too high as it’s pumped through your arteries and blood vessels, it can damage your heart and other major organs. Unfortunately high blood pressure usually has no symptoms, so it’s important to measure your blood pressure to stay on top of it.
  • High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by your liver, and found in certain foods (you can find a list of high-cholesterol foods here). Excess cholesterol can build up on the walls of our arteries, which narrows them, decreasing the flow of blood to the rest of your body.
  • Diabetes. People with diabetes don’t create enough insulin, causing sugar to build up in the bloodstream. As a result, the risk of death from heart disease is higher for adults with diabetes.
  • Obesity. Obesity—or excess body fat—is linked to a range of health problems, including heart disease. Reducing your weight to a healthy level is one very good way to reduce the threat of heart disease.

How to Reduce Your Risk for Heart Disease

  • Exercise. Physical activity is one of the most important ways to help reduce the risk of heart disease. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, or 75 minutes of high-intensity physical activity each week. One great and easy way to stay active: walking. Walking at a brisk pace every day for 20-30 minutes each day can give your body the exercise you need to reduce the risk of heart disease. (Always speak to your doctor before beginning any exercise program.)
  • Stop tobacco use. It’s widely known that tobacco use is linked to a range of adverse health conditions, including heart disease. How? Smoking can make blood “sticky” and more likely to form clots. This can block blood flow to the heart and brain. In addition, smoking can damage the cells that line the blood vessels, and increase the buildup of plaque in the arteries, causing them to narrow and thicken.
  • Diet changes. A diet high in saturated fats (you can see a list of examples here) can lead to heart disease. Too much salt in the diet is another factor—it can raise the blood pressure, so try to avoid too much of it. Some foods high in saturated fat include:
    • Beef
    • Lamb
    • Pork
    • Lard
    • Cream
    • Cheese
    • Ice Cream
    • Butter
    • Some baked and fried foods

We realize this list includes many of the foods people would love to eat every day, but it’s important to only eat them in moderation. Consuming too much food that’s high in saturated fat can put your health at risk.

Getting Started with Heart-Healthy Foods

In addition to cutting back on saturated fats and salt (sodium), it’s important to add more heart-healthy foods to your diet, such as:

  • Fiber. Vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains are high in fiber, which are a wonderful way to enhance your diet and eat more nutritiously.
  • Vegetables. The produce aisle in your supermarket is home to many of the healthiest foods on Earth. Make sure to eat fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and celery. Leafy greens for salads, such as Romaine lettuce, spinach, and kale are also incredibly healthy and good for your heart. If you’re eating canned vegetables, look for ones that are low in salt (sodium). Draining and rinsing canned vegetables can also help reduce sodium content by as much as 23%. Better yet, plain frozen vegetables are just as easy and affordable, but far less salted.
  • Dairy. Look for fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk. Soy milk or other plant-based milks with added calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D is also a heart-healthy option. When getting yogurt or cheese, consider fat-free or low-fat varieties as well.
  • Whole grains. Products labeled as “100% whole grain” indicate heart healthiness. You can find whole-grain breads, bagels, English muffins, and tortillas at just about any grocery store. In addition, look for whole grains like brown or wild rice, quinoa, or oats. Whole grain pasta and couscous are also healthy choices for your heart.
  • Proteins. Lean meats are far more heart-healthy than fatty meat. Here are some heart-smart choices to consider:
    • Seafood like fish and shellfish
    • Chicken or turkey breast without skin, or lean ground chicken or turkey labeled at least 93% lean.
    • Lean meats like pork shoulder, beef sirloin, or lean ground beef (labeled 93% lean)
    • Beans, peas, and lentils—for example, black beans and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) are healthy.
    • Eggs, unsalted nuts, seeds, peanut and almond butter, and tofu are also heart-healthy foods.

Symptoms to Watch Out For

Though it’s different for every person, there are common symptoms that indicate you may be close to—or actually having—a heart attack. Those symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain or pressure/tightness. This may be the most common symptom. It could feel like pressure or tightness in your chest. It’s also described as a squeezing or aching feeling, frequently accompanied by pain.
  • Pain in the arm or shoulder. This discomfort can spread from the chest to the arm or shoulder, as well as the back, neck, jaw, or even teeth.
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue. If you suddenly feel very tired out of nowhere, that could be a symptom.
  • Heartburn or indigestion.
  • Sudden dizziness. This is often described as feeling lightheaded.
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath.

Don’t take a chance when it comes to your heart. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms described above and feel like you may be on the verge of having a heart attack, visit CareWell Health’s Emergency Department.

Be heart smart: schedule a primary care appointment at CareWell Health by calling our Care Center at 973-266-8416.