Tips for a healthy heart

Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna

February is American Heart Month, and unfortunately, most of us know someone who has had heart disease or stroke at one time or another.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with one in three deaths caused by heart disease and stroke. These conditions are also leading causes of disability preventing people from working, enjoying family activities and living normal lives. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, costs the U.S. $312.6 billion each year. This total includes the cost of health care services, medications and lost productivity.

Heart disease takes the lives of too many people in this country, depriving their families and communities of someone they love and care for. One thing is certain, we can fight back against heart disease and stroke.

With more than 2 million heart attacks and strokes a year, and 800,000 deaths, it’s important you start taking some preventive measures one step at a time:

1. Stop smoking.

Quitting smoking is the single most important thing a person can do to live longer. If you are a smoker, you are twice as likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker. From the moment you stop smoking, the risk of heart attack starts to reduce. With public smoking bans recently introduced, there has never been a better time to quit smoking.

2. Cut down on salt.

Too much salt can cause high blood pressure, which increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Avoid foods like crisps, salted nuts, canned and packet soups and sauces, baked beans and canned vegetables, pork pies, pizzas and ready meals.

3. Watch your diet.

A healthy diet can help to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, and can also help increase the chances of survival after a heart attack. You should try to have a balanced diet, containing plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice. Avoid foods like biscuits, cakes, pastries and dairy products that are high in saturated fats and sugar.

4. Monitor your alcohol.

Too much alcohol can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and also lead to weight gain. Binge drinking will increase your risk of having a heart attack, so you should aim to limit your intake to one to two units a day.

5. Get active.

The heart is a muscle and it needs exercise to keep fit so it can pump blood efficiently round your body with each heart beat. You should aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a day. If this seems too daunting, start off gently and build up gradually. Keeping fit not only benefits your physical health, it improves your mental health and well-being too.

6. Manage your weight.

Carrying a lot of extra weight as fat can greatly affect your health and increases the risk of life-threatening conditions such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. If you are overweight or obese, start by making small, but healthy changes to what you eat, and try to become more active.

7. Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked.

The higher your blood pressure, the shorter your life expectancy. People with high blood pressure run a higher risk of having a stroke or a heart attack. High levels of cholesterol in the blood, produced by the liver from saturated fats, can lead to fatty deposits in your coronary arteries that increase your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and diseases that affect the circulation. You can help lower your cholesterol level by exercising and eating high-fiber foods such as porridge, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

8. Learn to manage your stress levels.

If you find things are getting on top of you, you may fail to eat properly, smoke and drink too much and this may increase your risk of a heart attack.

9. Check your family history .

If a close relative is at risk of developing coronary heart disease from smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of physical activity, obesity and diabetes, then you could be at risk too.

10. Make sure you can recognize the early signs of coronary heart disease.

Tightness or discomfort in the chest, neck, arm or stomach that comes on when you exert yourself but goes away with rest may be the first sign of angina, which can lead to a heart attack if left untreated.

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Happy Heart Month!