Heart Disease: Understanding My Risks and How to Lower Them

A couple wearing red holds their hands together in a heart shape

The first step toward heart health is understanding the risks associated with heart disease. Risk depends on many factors, some of which are changeable and others that are not. Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. These risk factors are different for each person. As we discussed last week, the first step in preventing heart disease is knowing and understanding our personal risks factors. The next step, which we will focus on in this blog, is identifying what steps we can take to lower them.

One of the biggest keys to successfully understanding individual risk factors is having a strong partnership with your provider. This is especially important because risk factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol generally don't have obvious signs or symptoms. A crucial step in determining your risk is to see your doctor for a thorough checkup and risk assessment. Your doctor may use a risk calculator to estimate your risk of having a heart attack, having a stroke, or dying from a heart or blood vessel disease in the next 10 years or throughout your lifetime.

Your doctor can be an important partner in helping you set and reach goals for heart health. It's a good idea to ask about your risk for heart disease at each annual checkup, since risk can change over time.

Listed below are some questions related to heart disease risk factors that you can ask your doctor at your annual checkups:

What is my blood pressure?

What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it? Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of our arteries as our heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage our heart and your blood vessels and lead to plaque buildup. Blood pressure is typically considered high when you have consistent systolic readings of 140 mm Hg or higher or diastolic readings of 90 mm Hg or higher. If your blood pressure is high, your doctor will likely suggest lifestyle changes and may prescribe medicines. Talk with your doctor about how often you should have your blood pressure checked.

What are my cholesterol numbers?

What do they mean, and what do I need to do about them? High blood cholesterol is a condition in which blood has unhealthy levels of cholesterol—a waxy, fat-like substance. Your cholesterol numbers include total cholesterol, "bad" LDL cholesterol, "good" HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. If you have unhealthy (high LDL/low HDL/high triglycerides) cholesterol levels, your doctor may suggest heart-healthy lifestyle changes. If these changes alone are not enough, your doctor may also prescribe a statin or other medicine to help manage your cholesterol levels.

How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?

Regular physical activity can lower many heart disease risk factors such as "bad" LDL cholesterol levels, increase "good" HDL cholesterol levels, and manage high blood pressure. The more active you are, the more you will benefit. Aerobic exercise benefits your lungs the most. This is any exercise in which your heart beats faster and you use more oxygen than usual, such as brisk walking, running, biking, and swimming.

What is a heart-healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or nutritionist?

Heart-healthy eating involves choosing certain foods, such as fruits and vegetables, while limiting others, such as saturated and trans fats and added sugars. Foods that make up the foundation of a heart-healthy eating plan include:

  • Vegetables: leafy greens (spinach, kale, cabbage), broccoli, and carrots
  • Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, pears, grapes, and prunes
  • Whole grains: plain oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain bread
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy: milk, cheese, or yogurt
  • Lean meats: skinless chicken, turkey, fish (high in omega 3 fatty acids)
  • Foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:

- Oils: Canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, sunflower, and soybean

- Nuts: walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts

- Seeds: sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, or flax

- Avocados

What screening tests for heart disease do I need?

Screening means testing for a disease when there are no symptoms or history of that disease. In terms of heart disease, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. That is because half of deaths resulting from Coronary heart disease (the leading cause of death among American adults) occur suddenly, without prior symptoms or warning. However, if the risk factors leading to a heart attack are identified early enough, 85% of sudden heart attacks may be prevented.

Summit Medical Group can measure your risk in minutes with a Cardiac Calcium Screen. The exam helps predict heart disease risk at an early stage, before symptoms occur, and for up to 10 years after the scan. Cardiac Calcium Scoring uses high resolution, rapid CT to take multiple angle X-rays, creating 2-dimensional images of the beating heart. It determines the amount of atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up, in the coronary arteries, which is directly related to your risk for a future heart attack. Over time, plaque can cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries, decreasing blood flow to the heart. Summit physicians analyze the CT to provide a calcium score for the risk of cardiac artery blockage. Your physician will receive your report and can devise a comprehensive plan to minimize risk and maximize heart health.

For additional information about our Cardiac Calcium Screening, visit: https://www.summitmedical.com/services/diagnostic/cardiacscreening. To schedule your screening, call 865-588-8005.