Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t something on television, the radio or online about heart disease and associated health problems including stroke, disability and death. In fact, heart disease remains the No. 1 killer in the U.S., despite the constant news and warnings. But heart disease can be controlled or even prevented if care is taken to learn about the causes of heart disease and the steps everyone should take to protect themselves from it.
Know Your Heart Disease Risk factors
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “About half of all Americans (47%) have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.” These and other conditions increase risk, but are also treatable and thus controllable.
- High blood pressure, often called “silent killer,” is easily diagnosed and treated, yet, the CDC notes, “Only about half (54%) of these people [75 million in the U.S.] have their high blood pressure under control.” High blood pressure can have no warning signs and is increasingly being diagnosed in younger people.
- High cholesterol, is a risk factor in heart disease and stroke and also has no symptoms. It is simply the build-up of a waxy substance in arteries that diminishes the flow of blood to vital organs like the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys, as well as to the rest of the body.
- Diabetes, when untreated and unmanaged can result in heart disease due to the increase of sugars in the blood. According to org, diabetes is also associated with high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and high triglycerides. Other related factors that further complicate heart disease include inactivity and obesity.
- Smoking is a behavior, rather than a condition, that damages the heart and blood vessels, greatly increasing risk of heart disease and stroke. Other behaviors the CDC cites include lack of exercise, drinking too much alcohol and an unhealthy diet that is high in salt, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
- Family history is also important to know not only because of inherited risks, but also for learned behaviors you share like poor diet, an inactive lifestyle, even where you live. According to the National Institutes of Health, “If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself.”
Heart Disease Control and Prevention
There are two primary areas that should be addressed to help seniors prevent or control heart disease: Medical treatment for inherited or other physical conditions and lifestyle changes to address behavioral issues that are increasing your risk.
Your physician routinely checks your blood pressure and your cholesterol and will prescribe medications if needed. It’s up to you, however, to take those medications as prescribed. Some medications may have to be adjusted over time to ensure they are working and that there are no negative repercussions from their use.
Similarly, you should inform your physician of any symptoms of diabetes and have your blood sugar tested to determine if you have it. The tests will also tell you if you have pre-diabetes or Type 1 (usually develops early in life) or Type 2 (most common in people over the age of 45). According to the CDC, risk of Type 2 diabetes is higher among women who had diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) or gave birth to a baby over nine pounds, or people who are “African American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian, or Alaska Native (some Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are also at higher risk).”
If diagnosed with diabetes, it is essential to understand and monitor blood sugar (aka blood glucose) levels as instructed. Your doctor should explain what the associated numbers mean to your health and the CDC also offers help in the article “Monitoring You Blood Sugar.”
Even as your doctor is prescribing medications, they will also be talking to you about your lifestyle. At the top of the lifestyle change list is quitting tobacco. Among the many benefits of quitting are lowered risk of different cancers, diseases of the lungs and respiratory tract, heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. For help quitting the CDC offers a wealth of resources including “Tips From Former Smokers®.”
It’s also essential to follow your physician’s advice if you are overweight. Obesity is a contributing factor in many diseases in addition to heart disease so losing weight may directly impact other conditions. Again, a healthy diet and exercise are key to not only losing weight, but controlling blood sugar, reducing bad fats and regaining your overall health.
If you have access to group exercise opportunities such as at senior centers and YMCAs, these are great places to start exercising and meet people who are also trying to improve their health. They may also offer classes or workshops on nutrition that can help you learn how to improve your diet. If you live in an independent or assisted living facility, consult your monthly calendar of events and commit to getting as many minutes of exercise that you can. If you are unsure about how to begin or what’s best for you, Chapter five of health.gov’s book, “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” is a great resource.
Finally, dietary changes should be considered. It is possible to eat well and lose weight if you know what to eat and what not to eat. One great resource for dietary information for those 65 and above is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s document, “Choosing Healthy Meals as You Get Older.” This handy worksheet provides simple ways to make better choices about what you eat and drink, explains how to make the most of the Nutrition Facts labels on foods you buy, and more. If you are cooking for one, check out our blog, “Cooking for One: Tips and Recipes.” You might even want to consider sharing some of the great recipes with new friends in your exercise class.
Even if you feel fine, don’t smoke, and get exercise, it’s always a good idea to get regular checkups and monitor what you eat and drink. Spending time with like-minded friends will also provide a support network that can make life more rewarding!