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5 controllable heart disease risk factors

Heart disease is not inevitable, even if it runs in your family. There are five important heart disease risk factors that you can control. A poor diet, high blood pressure and cholesterol, stress, smoking and obesity are factors shaped by your lifestyle and can be improved through behavior modifications.

Risk factors that cannot be controlled include family history, age and gender. Talk with your doctor about all of your risk factors so he or she can help you assess the best ways to protect yourself from heart disease.

1. Poor diet and heart disease

“Prevention is the best medicine,” says Clarke Latimer, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. “Even when people take medication for cholesterol, the best health benefits are from exercise and diet. So, the best way to prevent heart attacks and strokes is by eating well and exercising regularly. We should eat less red meat and fatty foods, and more vegetables, fish, chicken, and non-animal proteins.”

Excessive fat from your diet leads to fatty deposits in your arteries. As these deposits build up, they harden and lead to blockages, depriving your heart of much-needed oxygen. Countless studies have found a plant-based, low-fat diet can reduce the risk of numerous chronic conditions, including heart disease.

2. High blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease

High blood pressure (hypertension) can damage your heart and arteries, leaving you more prone to heart disease. Make sure your doctor checks your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If you are diagnosed with hypertension or high cholesterol, follow your physician’s recommendations for lifestyle modifications and prescribed medications.

3. Stress and heart disease

Stress is harmful to your health in multiple ways. First, extended periods of stress cause your body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Studies have shown that elevated levels of these hormones are a good predictor of heart disease-related death.

During stressful times, you may exercise less and succumb to junk food as a coping mechanism. Stress can also wear down your blood vessels and predispose them to plaque buildup.

“Stress causes physical symptoms, including muscle tension and headaches, abdominal pain and depression,” says Dr. Latimer. “Managing stress is very important to living a healthier life. I advise patients to talk about the stresses they have with family, friends or a counselor. By confiding our stresses with our others, we share the burden and help each other with our stresses.”

4. Smoking and heart disease

You are probably well-aware that smoking leads to asthma, emphysema and lung cancer, but did you know it is also a contributing factor to heart disease? When you light up a cigarette or cigar, you are potentially causing a buildup of fatty substances in your arteries, known as atherosclerosis. Yet another reason to kick your smoking habit for good.

“If you want to stop smoking, I recommend making a list of the times in the day when you must have a cigarette, such as with your morning coffee, while meeting with friends or at mealtimes,” he says. “Then eliminate them one by one over time. Smoking 10 cigarettes a day is better than smoking 20. Smoking zero is best, but that is hard to achieve right away. If you relapse, try again. Use nicotine replacement patches or gum to give your body the nicotine it craves. Do not vape because we don’t know what is in vaping liquids.”

5. Obesity and heart disease

Obesity elevates blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which lead to cardiovascular disease. Extra pounds are also linked to hypertension and diabetes (another contributing factor to heart disease).

“I recommend getting your heart rate up and working up a sweat for 30 to 45 minutes, three or more times per week,” says Dr. Latimer. “I advise people to start slow and build up intensity over time. Make small, achievable goals for yourself.”

This doesn’t mean you have to join an expensive gym or buy pricey workout gear.

“I tell people who are just starting to exercise to wear comfortable shoes – like running shoes – and walk for 10 minutes one day a week,” he says. “Do this for a few weeks and then increase the frequency to three times per week. Then increase the duration to 15 to 20 minutes. Find a school track and walk on that when the school is not using it. Get a friend to join you. Walk in the mall during bad weather. The only excuse for not being more active is a bad one.”

Cardiovascular disease is preventable. By focusing on these five areas for improvement, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing a serious heart condition. Learn more about heart disease prevention.

Dr. Latimer practices at Piedmont Physicians Midtown Family Practice, located 1080 Peachtree Street Northeast, Suite 12, Atlanta, GA 30309. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Latimer or one of our other primary care providers. Or book an appointment with a Piedmont cardiologist today.

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