Pharmacy Residency (PGY1)

Parkland cardiologist shares how to keep your heart healthy

Parkland cardiologist shares how to keep your heart healthy

Small lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of heart disease

Look at your clenched fist. For the next minute open and close your fist between 60 and 100 times. That’s a simplistic way to replicate the size and workload of an adult heart – and why keeping it healthy should be everyone’s job to help prevent heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One person dies every 34 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease.

“The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease (CAD), which causes heart attacks. Fortunately, coronary artery disease is very preventable with lifestyle changes and medications,” said Ann Marie Navar, MD, Cardiologist at Parkland Health and Associate Professor of Cardiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

A buildup of cholesterol plaques in the walls of the heart artery causes CAD. Over time, this can limit the blood flow to the heart, causing chest pain or “angina”. The more feared complication of CAD is a heart attack, where part of the cholesterol breaks off in the artery, a blood clot forms and blood flow in the artery is blocked.

“It takes years if not decades to build up enough cholesterol in the arteries to cause disease, but during that time most people don’t have any symptoms. That’s why it’s so important to think about heart disease prevention early, to prevent the cholesterol from depositing in the arteries in the first place,” said Dr. Navar.

About 697,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease in 2020, which is about one in every five deaths, according to the CDC.

Some elements could increase an individual’s risk for coronary artery disease, according to Dr. Navar:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Obesity and diet quality
  • Diabetes
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Environmental factors, like air pollution
  • Genetics, more specifically having a first-degree family member with a heart attack or stroke before the age of 55 in men or 65 in women

But with lifestyle changes, and for some, medications, a person can dramatically reduce their chances of developing heart disease.

“The best diet for heart disease prevention is probably either a Mediterranean diet or a plant-based diet. A Mediterranean diet includes lean meats and seafood, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and whole grains,” explains Dr. Navar. “Added sugars in our diet are probably the most dangerous thing for our heart, followed by saturated fats and trans fats.”

Many adults at risk for heart disease are recommended to take a cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin, even if their cholesterol isn’t very high. “Statins are probably the most effective medications we have now to prevent heart disease and can lower someone’s risk of a heart attack or stroke by up to 50%. In most people, we’re not treating high cholesterol with the statin, we’re treating someone’s overall risk of heart disease,” said Dr. Navar.

Here are seven strategies to live a heart-healthy lifestyle from the CDC:

  1. Learn your health history
  2. Eat a healthy diet
  3. Move more, sit less (150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity)
  4. Quit smoking
  5. Take medication as directed
  6. Choose your drinks wisely
  7. Monitor your blood pressure

Dr. Navar also emphasizes the importance of regular checkups to identify and treat other risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. “These risk factors for heart disease are often asymptomatic, so many people don’t know they have these conditions until they see their doctor,” said Dr. Navar. She adds that safe, effective medications can be used to treat these risk factors and lower a person's risk of heart attack or stroke.

But some signs could signal something isn’t right. According to Dr. Navar, the most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain or pressure. Sometimes that pain can radiate to the back, neck, jaw, or down the arm. People who may be experiencing a heart attack should call 911 immediately.

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