The Good News About Heart Disease

Heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death for both men and women.

EDoctor holding a cloth heart with a bandaid on it.very 25 seconds, someone experiences a coronary event; every minute, it claims a life.

The good news? You can take steps to reduce your risk of heart disease through routine screenings and lifestyle changes — even if you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke.

“Heart disease is a disease we can do something about. In most instances, it is preventable,” says Daniel Edmundowicz, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and director of preventive cardiology at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

Dr. Edmundowicz recommends regular health screenings as a way of knowing your numbers and whether to take action. For example, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels, but you wouldn’t know you have these conditions without testing for them.

“Screening absolutely saves lives. We can help people change the outcome once we know their risk factor levels,” Dr. Edmundowicz says.

Doctors also can use tools such as EKGs, ultrasound, and CT scans to look for signs of atherosclerosis in the heart, neck, legs, and arms — especially if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.

At the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, you can take advantage of the region’s only low radiation electron beam CT scan, which looks specifically for calcium in the coronary arteries as a marker of the cholesterol accumulation that can cause sudden heart attacks.

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. While you can’t control genetics, you can take steps to control many other risk factors by following a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy body weight. Some changes — like quitting smoking — can have an immediate impact.

“The bottom line is: If you know your numbers and know your risk, you can do something about it,” Dr. Edmundowicz says.

Five Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure

High blood pressure puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, and other serious diseases. Follow these recommendations from Dr. Edmundowicz to take charge of this “silent killer”:

  • Increase physical activity. Aim for at least 30 minutes each day (most days) of brisk walking, bike riding, or other aerobic activity that you enjoy.
  • Monitor your sodium. Limit your sodium intake to less than two grams (2,000 mg) a day. Beware of “hidden” sodium in processed foods, including canned soup, lunch meats, frozen dinners, and crackers.
  • Eat healthy. Follow a lower-fat diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods.
  • Control your stress. Take 15 minutes each day to decompress and focus on yourself. Listen to music, read, pray, or meditate.
  • Don’t smoke! Nicotine has a direct effect on your blood vessels as well as your lungs. It causes your heart to beat faster, and raises your blood pressure.
  • Take your medicine. If medicine is needed to control your blood pressure, make sure you take it as prescribed by your doctor.

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