Care for your heart this February

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Each year, the month of February is filled with images celebrating Valentine's Day.

The heart-focused theme doesn't have to end on the holiday, however. February is designated "American Heart Month" by the American Heart Association and has been for nearly 50 years.

"A time to battle cardiovascular disease and educate Americans on what we can do to live heart-healthy lives," heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, equal to 2,200 deaths per day.

Nicholas "Dr. Nick" Yphantides, M.D., M.P.H., medical editor for TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the nonprofit weight-loss support organization, offers the following recommendations to proactively promote a healthier heart -- and ultimately, a better quality of life.

Signs of a heart attack

First, know the common signs of a heart attack and what can be done to prevent such medical emergencies.

If an individual is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. A quick response can save a life and prevent permanent damage to the heart muscle. The various treatments for heart attacks work best if they are given within one hour of when symptoms begin, or as soon as possible.

Common symptoms of a heart attack include:

* Unusually heavy pressure on the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.

* Sharp upper-body pain in the neck, back and jaw.

* Severe shortness of breath.

* Cold sweats.

* Unusual or unexplained tiredness.

* Unfamiliar dizziness or light-headedness.

* Unexplained nausea or vomiting.

It is so important that it is worth repeating -- time is of the essence. The sooner emergency medical systems are activated during a heart attack, the better chances are for health and survival.

Know the facts

Some conditions and lifestyle factors can put individuals at a higher risk for developing heart disease and having a heart attack. Genetics can also have a significant impact.

For those who already know they have heart disease, the need to be proactive with health and lifestyle decisions is especially great.

The following conditions and factors increase the risk of a heart attack:

* Elevated cholesterol levels. There are "good" and "bad" forms of cholesterol. The body needs cholesterol, but when there is too much, the excess is deposited in arteries. This can lead to artery narrowing and heart disease. Different tests can determine risk level and help individuals manage cholesterol levels.

* High blood pressure. A person can have high blood pressure with no symptoms at all. When the pressure of blood in the arteries is too high, it can cause damage and be a major risk factor for heart disease. Lowering blood pressure can dramatically lower the risk of heart attack.

* Diabetes mellitus. With diabetes, the body either doesn't make enough insulin, can't use its own insulin as well as it should, or both. Sugars build up in the blood, which is very dangerous to circulation. About 75 percent of all people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. It's critical that people with diabetes work with a healthcare provider to manage the disease and control other risk factors.

* Smoking. Tobacco smoking promotes atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaque inside of blood vessels) and increases the levels of blood clotting factors, such as fibrinogen. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure, and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. 

* Eating habits. Dietary patterns linked to heart disease and related conditions include diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis. High salt or sodium in the diet causes raised blood pressure levels as well. Aim for less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium each day.

* A sedentary life. Physical inactivity is related to the development of heart disease and can impact other risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, a low level of HDL, or good cholesterol, and diabetes. Regular physical activity can improve risk factor levels. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.

* Excess weight. Obesity is linked to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and to lower HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Extra weight puts a tremendous burden on the heart to pump blood through more tissue than it can handle.

* Alcohol use. Heavy drinking leads to higher blood pressure and increases blood levels of triglycerides, which contribute to atherosclerosis.

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