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UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

Reduce your risk of heart disease

Checkup on Health

couple walking in park
Because heart disease takes years to develop, people should not put off making changes until they are older and feel that they are at higher risk. Adopting a healthy exercise regimen early is important.

By Saul Schaefer, M.D.

Few medical problems can alter your life as suddenly and dramatically as a heart attack.

Often striking without warning, heart attacks result in death in more than 25 percent of those who suffer one and leave others with various degrees of disability. Heart disease is the primary killer in this country of both men and women.

About the author

Dr. Schaefer is a cardiologist with UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

People at highest risk include men over 45 years, women past menopause, smokers, people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or those who are more than 20 pounds overweight. People with diabetes or who have a family history of heart disease are also at increased risk.

The good news is that we all can take steps to reduce our risk of heart disease. Because heart disease takes years to develop, people should not put off making changes until they are older and feel that they are at higher risk.

Some steps may involve a real change in lifestyle; others are as simple as getting a checkup or taking a daily pill. Most have health benefits well beyond reducing the risk of heart attack.

1. Quit smoking

For any smoker, this is the single most important change you can make to improve your health. If you’ve tried before but not been successful, try again. Your doctor can help you set up a plan and offer you a variety of smoking cessation programs and medications to ease the process.

2. Eat a diet low in saturated fat

Reducing the saturated fat in your diet, or replacing these animal fats with vegetable fats, can help you shed unwanted pounds and is good for your arteries even if you are not overweight. Making the initial change is often harder than sticking with it, and there are many varied diets that suit the palates of different people. Get a good guide, such as an American Heart Association cookbook, and take the suggestions to heart.

3. Be active

Regular exercise is important for everyone, whether an athlete or couch potato. The trick is to make it a habit, and do it on a regular basis. Think of an exercise session as something your doctor prescribed, like a medication you must have. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times each week. A brisk walk will do it.

4. Know your cholesterol

Diet and exercise changes may bring cholesterol and blood pressure levels to normal. Otherwise, you may need medications to control them.

Total cholesterol levels can be broken down into high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), both of which give important information about your heart disease risk. If your LDL is high, or your HDL is low, talk to your doctor. Diet and exercise changes may bring levels to normal. Otherwise, you may need medications to control it.

5. Have your blood pressure checked

Losing weight and getting regular moderate exercise often brings blood pressure levels to normal. It should be less than 140 mmHg over less than 90 mmHg, lower for people with diabetes or vascular disease. Both numbers are now known to be important. Losing weight and getting regular moderate exercise often brings levels to normal. If not, talk to your doctor about blood pressure lowering medications.

6. Consider taking a daily aspirin

This is now recommended for all people who have already had a heart attack. It may also be an important preventive step to consider for others. Because of the potential harmful side effects of aspirin, consult your doctor before using it regularly.

7. For diabetics

While many people experience a heart attack without any prior symptoms, if you are fortunate enough to have warning signs, don’t ignore them. Quick intervention can make all the difference in preventing or surviving an attack.

If you have diabetes, work towards maximum control, not only of blood glucose, but also of other cardiovascular risk factors as noted above. Consult with your doctor to bring this serious disease, which carries a myriad of health risks, under control. Proper diet, medication and blood sugar monitoring are keys to success.

Last, but not least, know the symptoms of a heart attack. Chest pain is variously described as an uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing sensation, which lasts longer than 10 minutes or is recurring. The discomfort is sometimes felt in the jaw, neck, shoulders or arms. Shortness of breath, nausea and sweating may accompany the pain. Attacks can happen with exertion or at rest. 

Call 911 or seek emergency medical services immediately if you suspect you may be having a heart attack. While many people experience a heart attack without any prior symptoms, if you are fortunate enough to have warning signs, don’t ignore them. Quick intervention can make all the difference in preventing or surviving a heart attack.