Valentine's Day is right around the corner, and store displays serve as a great reminder to think about heart health during February's American Heart Month. For this month of cardiovascular health awareness, it is important to know how to prevent the number one and number four killers in the United States: Cardiovascular (heart) disease and stroke.
Heart disease is often caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. If this buildup forms a clot blocking blood flow to the heart, a heart attack results. If the blockage is preventing blood flow to the brain, it causes a stroke. Other cardiovascular issues to consider are heart failure, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and heart valve problems.
American Heart Month fittingly falls soon after the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology released revised guidelines to prevent heart disease and stroke. These guidelines focus on four main areas: obesity, statins (cholesterol-lowering medications), new risk equations, diet and exercise.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than one-third of American adults are obese. New guidelines are attempting to shift obesity from being labeled as a lifestyle problem to being viewed by medical professionals as a disease that needs to be managed. To keep a healthy heart, body mass index (BMI) should be calculated yearly. A BMI of 30 or higher constitutes obesity. Effective weight loss depends on eating fewer calories than the body needs, increasing exercise, and adjusting unhealthy lifestyle behaviors.
The second area in the new guidelines is the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins. Although they do lower cholesterol, they also target overall cardiovascular risk. The AHA estimates that 33 million more American adults without heart disease who have a 7.5 percent or greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next ten years could benefit from taking statins. Talk to a doctor to find out how statins can benefit heart health.
For the first time, doctors can calculate the risk of heart disease for the higher-risk African American population. These new equations benefit everyone, as they are now designed to include stroke risk. The equation takes into account race, gender, age, total cholesterol, good cholesterol, blood pressure, use of blood pressure medications, diabetes status, and smoking status. The use of these equations helps doctors determine the risk of heart disease, and leads to more effective preventative care.
One of the main highlights of the revised dietary guidelines is a focus on overall diet, rather than forbidding the occasional indulgence. A diet should be high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, nuts, limited red meat, sugary foods, beverages, and sodium. The average American currently consumes about 3600 milligrams of sodium daily; the AHA recommends less than 1500 milligrams of sodium per day. If you combine this healthy overall diet with 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to four times a week, your heart will definitely thank you. The CDC reported this year that healthy children need 60 minutes of activity per day, as opposed to an adult's 40 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week.
Beyond these four revised guidelines, these tips are also important for cardiovascular health:
~ Find ways to effectively manage stress.
~ Monitor blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
~ Don't smoke.
~ Limit sodium and alcohol intake.
~ Manage diabetes levels.
~ Take prescribed medications.
~ Invite friends and family to join in a healthy heart journey.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.
~ Heart attack: lightheadedness, nausea, shortness of breath, and chest or other upper body area pain.
~ Stroke: Think FAST! Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty? Time to call 911.
Let Valentine's Day displays in stores be a reminder of the importance of a healthy heart. Celebrate American Heart Month by improving cardiovascular health. Happy Heart Month!
(Dr. Carmen Ilie  is a cardiologist and interventional cardiologist at St. Alexius Heart & Lung Clinic.  She is specially trained to diagnose and treat heart disease and has particular interest in women's heart health.)