Health / Expert Advice

What Cardiologists Want You to Know About Heart Health

Here’s what heart experts want you to know about caring for the most important muscle in your body.

You know that your heart is important. It’s your body’s hardest working muscle, pumping vital blood and oxygen to the rest of your body. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly one out of every three deaths in the U.S. But still, too few Americans are taking proper care of their heart. Family history and your lifestyle both play a large role in determining your heart health. Here are some fascinating facts from the nation’s top cardiologists about heart health.

Age isn’t always on your side when it comes to heart disease.

If you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, you might think you’re in the clear when it comes to a condition like heart disease, but unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. “No matter what your age or how young you are, you should still be aware of your heart health and your risk for heart disease,” says David Greuner, M.D. cardiovascular surgeon, and co-founder of NYC Surgical. “Plaque buildup in arteries and unhealthy lifestyle habits that can lead to heart disease can start in your teens and 20s, so you should really begin to focus on these issues at an early age,” Greuner advises.

Exercise is critical to heart health.

Any form of regular aerobic physical activity does wonders for your heart and overall wellbeing. That includes walking, jogging, swimming, biking, etc. “Regular exercise helps make the heart stronger and [more] efficient, lowers stress, improve[s] sleeping, [leads to a] healthier body weight and improve[s] muscle tone and strength,” says Sanjiv Patel, M.D., cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “Overall, exercise will help reduce the chance of getting other diseases, like high blood pressure and diabetes, that increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.” Strive to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, four to five days per week.

Your diet is also vital to maintaining a healthy heart.

“It is also important to eat [a] low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol diet, so that [the] arteries that bring the vital nutrients and oxygen to the heart stay open, thus, allowing the heart to do its job,” says Dr. Patel. He recommends piling your plate with mostly fruits and vegetables since they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Additionally, reach for good fats, like mono- and polyunsaturated fats, over bad fats, like saturated and trans-fat. And choose lean meats—poultry without skin and fish—instead of fattier cuts of meat. “Try to make your own food, so that you can control what you eat and what goes into it,” he adds.

Get your annual physical.

When you’re young and seemingly healthy, it’s tempting to skip that yearly doctor’s visit. But, experts agree that patients who check in with their doctor have the best chance of reducing their risk for coronary artery diseases. “If you’re at risk, your doctor will likely order an electrocardiogram (EKG) and check both your blood pressure and fasting cholesterol,” says Nicole Weinberg, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “If these are assessed at least once a year, then there are fewer surprises, as it relates to these ‘silent killers.’”

Heart attack symptoms can be different for men and women.

Most people know that the main symptom of a heart attack is extreme chest pain. However, Dr. Greuner explains that women can experience other symptoms that they may not originally associate with a heart attack. “These symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, pain in one (or both) arms, nausea and vomiting, extreme fatigue, jaw pain, and neck pain,” he says. Dr. Petre agrees that women pose a particular challenge when it comes to heart disease, due to their insidious symptoms. For this reason, she says women often face a later diagnosis and poorer cardiovascular outcomes.

Smoking doubles the risk of heart attack, compared to non-smoking.

You’ve probably heard most of your life—if not your entire life—that smoking causes cancer. Smoking also leads to a whole host of other conditions and diseases, including heart attack. Dr. Patel explains that even second-hand smoke can affect the heart health of those around you, especially children. “Stop smoking, as it will single-handedly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 50 percent,” he says.

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