While cardiovascular disease is the nation's leading cause of death, the common-sense prescription for a stronger heart and healthier cardiovascular system is fairly simple and straightforward: Eat right, exercise and don't smoke.
"It can make a big difference," says Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a spokesman for the American Heart Association and a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. "Heart disease is not something you're born with except on rare occasions. It's an acquired disease, something that can be prevented."
More than 910,000 Americans die of cardiovascular disease every year, and some 70 million Americans are living with it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart attacks and strokes, often the fatal results of the disease, are among the nation's leading causes of death.
The cardiovascular system includes your heart and the blood vessels throughout your body that carry oxygen-nourished blood to the heart and brain. Blocked or constricted blood vessels lie at the heart of cardiovascular disease.
Some people are at higher risk and their risk factors can't be changed. For example, men over age 50 are more prone, family history can play a part, and some racial and ethnic groups show higher mortality rates. But many risk factors can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle. Here are some simple steps:
Watch your diet. The American Heart Association recommends the DASH diet–which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension–based on a clinical study funded primarily by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and published initially in 1997. This eating plan is low in cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat, but rich in low-fat dairy foods, fruits and vegetables and has been proven to lower blood pressure. DASH is inexpensive, easy to follow and effective. To review the updated DASH eating plan with recipes, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov and click on "Recipes for Healthy Eating" and then "The DASH Eating Plan," or obtain a booklet for $3.50 by contacting the NHLBI Health Information Center at (301) 592-8573.
Exercise. Since the heart is a muscle, moderate physical activity can strengthen the heart, in addition to providing other important health advantages including weight control, lower cholesterol levels, and better circulation and blood pressure. Start slowly and gradually build up to at least 30 minutes, five or more times per week (or as recommended by your doctor). If you don't have a full 30 minutes, try two 15-minute sessions daily to meet your goal.
Quit smoking. A smoker's risk for disease is two to three times higher than that of a nonsmoker, according to Dr. Richard Stein, director of preventative cardiology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "If you smoke, it is critical that you stop," Stein says. The average smoker tries eight times before stopping; so if you've tried before, try again.
Know your numbers. Everyone should know four numbers: your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugar and waist size. Consult your physician about healthy parameters, and keep the numbers in check through diet, exercise and, if necessary, medication. Get regular checkups, beginning with blood pressure screenings during childhood. Adults should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years. Check your blood sugar as recommended by a physician in order to prevent or manage diabetes. Diabetes, which occurs when the body does not process blood sugar properly, can impair or destroy blood vessels and increase the risk for a heart attack.
Listen to your body. Ask yourself: Could I have cardiovascular disease? If you feel chest pain, palpitations, dizziness or shortness of breath during physical activity, see a doctor. It's never too early to prevent cardiovascular disease or too late to address its causes, according to Fletcher, who says good health starts with the daily choices that each individual makes.
"We cannot expect the medical profession to take care of us," Fletcher says. "We take care of our cars, we have our televisions repaired and we do things to make our boats run better. But we only have one body and, if we don't take care of it, we don't get another one."