Cardiovascular health is important all year round, but with a little extra help from Cupid, we place special importance on heart health in February. Here are a few things you might not know about heart disease, and ways you can promote your own heart’s health.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with about 1 in 4 deaths attributed to heart disease (1). The term heart disease is an umbrella term relating to many diseases of the heart or vasculature of the body. Heart disease is the result of plaque buildup in your arteries, which causes the pathway that blood travels through to the body to narrow with time, reducing blood flow to the needed areas of the body. The leading risks for plaque buildup and heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure has variability throughout the day, with the tendency to rise and fall. It is the pressure applied against your arteries as they carry blood away from the heart to the rest of your body. Having blood pressure consistently measured above the normal of 120/80 mmHg (systolic/diastolic blood pressure) increases the risk of heart disease and/or cardiac events, like a heart attack. Elevated blood pressure usually develops over time and may be related to other lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, and weight.
Unfortunately, high cholesterol has no visible signs or symptoms, so the best thing to do is get your cholesterol checked regularly. All cholesterol is not bad and it can serve important functions, but when it is too much, it can become a problem. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates through the body in the forms of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and HDL (“good” cholesterol). Cholesterol can bind to other substances, creating hard deposits that will stick to your artery walls. Too much “bad” and not enough “good” cholesterol increases that risk of buildup and eventual risk of limiting blood supply to the heart or brain.
Plain and simple, do not smoke, and if you do already, consider quitting (2). There are resources through the CDC and many local organizations to help with quitting the habit of smoking. Smoking fewer than 5 cigarettes a day still increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. The habit of smoking damages the blood vessels by making them thicker, stiffer, and narrower, making the heart work harder to get blood through the body (3).
A healthy and balanced diet, along with exercise, are great ways to combat the leading risk factors. From a diet standpoint, reducing your intake of sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats will help to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. To keep a balanced diet, it is important to get in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber while limiting sodium and sugar.
Keeping active is important too. Sedentary behavior lowers HDL (the “good” cholesterol), and regular exercise (about 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity – such as a brisk walk) helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol (4). The best place to start with improving heart health, go for a walk and eat a well-balanced meal!
Kimberly Burke is a lecturer in the Department of Health and Exercise Science and the director of their Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students. To learn more, see the Adult Fitness Program website