Start With Your Heart

It is possible to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. This often means making or maintaining healthy lifestyle changes and/or taking medicine prescribed by a doctor. Making changes in the following areas could affect an individual’s risk for heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

Alcohol Use

There is conflicting evidence about the impact of alcohol on stroke and heart disease. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and produce irregular heartbeats. It may contribute to high cholesterol, cancer and other diseases. Those who drink moderately may have a lower risk of heart disease. It is best to talk with a health care professional about alcohol and potential risk factors.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of an irregular heartbeat. The heart may feel like it is “fluttering” because the top parts of the heart (atria) are beating very quickly. When this happens, the heart pumps blood less effectively and blood pools in the heart. This may lead to a blood clot. Symptoms can include fatigue, heart fluttering or pounding, fainting or dizziness, shortness of breath and anxiety. An individual should seek medical attention when these symptoms occur. Individuals with Afib have an increased risk of a stroke and heart failure.

Manage Your Blood Pressure

You can self-monitor your blood pressure.

Blood Pressure Numbers

Blood pressure measures the force it takes the heart to pump blood through the body and it is recorded in two numbers. The top number (systolic) measures the heart when it is working. The bottom number (diastolic) measures the heart when it is at rest.

  • Normal blood pressure should usually be lower than 140/90.
  • High blood pressure most often occurs when the top number is 140 or higher, or the bottom number is 90 or higher.
  • If blood pressure numbers are between 120/80 and 139/89, it is a good idea to talk with a health care provider.

Controlling blood pressure numbers is extremely important to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.  Ways to reduce the risk of high blood pressure include:

  • Reducing sodium intake
  • Maintaining a normal weight
  • Not smoking or using tobacco products
  • Being physically active

There are usually no symptoms for high blood pressure. That is why it is so important for each person to know their own blood pressure numbers. Monitor your blood pressure.

High blood pressure can occur in children or adults, however, it is more common in the following groups of people:

  • African Americans
  • Men older than 55
  • Women older than 65
  • People that are overweight or obese
  • Heavy drinkers
  • Women who are taking birth control pills
  • People with diabetes, gout or kidney disease

High blood pressure may also run in families.

Cholesterol Levels

Everyone has cholesterol. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance found in your blood and body’s cells. Your body uses cholesterol to protect nerves, make cell tissues, and make certain hormones.

There are different types of cholesterol. A health care provider will draw blood and test it for different types of cholesterol and provide a report with several numbers. The overall or total cholesterol number should be below 200 mg/dL.

HDL Cholesterol (high density lipoprotein): This “good cholesterol” will help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by removing the “bad cholesterol.” HDL cholesterol levels should be 60 mg/dL or higher. If HDL cholesterol is too low (less than 40 mg/dL) the risk for heart disease may be increased.

LDL Cholesterol (low density lipoprotein): This is often called “bad cholesterol.” LDL is found in saturated fats. Too much LDL cholesterol can clog arteries which can increase risk of heart attack and stroke.

Lipoprotein (a) (LP) Cholesterol: This cholesterol is made of protein and fat. Like LDL, this LP cholesterol clogs arteries which can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and coronary heart disease.

Triglycerides: These are a form of fat which are mainly found in blood. They come from food and are made inside the body. People with high triglycerides often have high total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, and low HDL cholesterol levels. People with who have heart disease, have diabetes or are obese are also likely to have high triglycerides. Triglycerides levels should be below 150 mg/dL.

Diabetes Management

If someone has diabetes, they have a higher risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and other health complications. However, diabetes patients may avoid or delay these conditions if they manage their diabetes and monitor their overall health. A health care provider can do periodic testing to assess blood sugar levels (A1C) and other risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Some people with diabetes may need to take a cholesterol lowering medication (“statin”) to lower their risk of heart attack or stroke, even if their cholesterol levels are not high.

Food Choices and Nutrition

Maintaining a healthy diet is important to prevent heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and other health complications. In general, a diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol; controls portion sizes; and includes daily servings of fruits and vegetables helps to manage cholesterol levels, obesity and overall health. High-salt diets may increase blood pressure. It is best to ask a health care provider specific diet questions.

Illicit Drug Use

There is an increased risk of stroke and sudden cardiac arrest (when the heart stops) if an individual uses illegal drugs or missuses over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Physical Activity Level

Making physical activity a part of daily activities may help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and other health complications. The Healthy North Carolina 2020 recommendation for physical activity is at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or more days per week or vigorous physical activity for at least 20 minutes three or more days per week.

Salt Intake

Eating too much salt (sodium) can raise blood pressure. It is best to talk with a health care professional about how much sodium should be in the diet.

Stress Levels

A person’s ability to recognize their stress level and take steps to reduce it can be good for both mental health and overall wellbeing. Stress levels can affect blood pressure and increase the risk of a heart attack. It is less clear if stress contributes to a person’s risk for stroke.

Tobacco Use

Don’t smoke or chew! Smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. If a person is taking oral contraceptives while using tobacco products, the risks for stroke and heart attacks increase even more.

Weight Management

Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, heart disease, stroke and other health complications.