Metaphorically, the heart is the center of our emotional being. Literally, the heart is a fascinating fist shaped, blood-filled pump that is central to life itself. The human heart beats approximately 72 beats per minute, 100,000 times a day, 40 million beats per year and clocks in up to 3 billion beats in an average lifetime without ever stopping to rest. The heart works ceaselessly, pumping life-sustaining blood through a 60,000 mile long network of vessels to keep every cell supplied with fresh nutrients and oxygen, while clearing away harmful waste matter. The heart is made of cardiac muscle, which works involuntarily, and as we go about our day, we may just take our heartbeats for granted.
Given the heart’s many life sustaining functions, it seems wise to take care of it. Yet, heart disease has risen steadily over the last century largely due to changes in diet and lifestyle. Some changes in the heart and blood vessels are normal as we age, but over time disease can cause serious damage. Heart disease causes nearly 700,000 deaths of American men and women each year, making it the leading cause of death in the United States. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has established the factors that increase your risk of developing heart disease. The more factors you have, the greater your risks. However, the effort you put into controlling one factor will have a positive impact on other risk factors. For example, losing weight helps to lower blood pressure. Here’s a closer look at which factors are uncontrollable and which you can change.
Risk factors you can’t change:
- Your age – Over age 45 for men and over age 55 for women
- Family history of heart disease
Risk factors you can change:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
Let’s take a closer look:
Smoking – Cigarette smokers are four times as likely to develop congestive heart disease than non-smokers, are twice as likely to have a stroke, and ten times more likely to have peripheral vascular disease. If you are a man and you continue to smoke, your life may be shortened by more than 13 years and if you are a woman who smokes, your life may be reduced by nearly 15 years. If you want to increase your life span, make the choice to stop smoking.
High blood pressure – High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke and is the number one risk factor for congestive heart failure. You can take steps to prevent high blood pressure by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
High blood cholesterol – The higher your blood cholesterol level, the greater your chances of developing heart disease or having a heart attack. High blood cholesterol does not cause symptoms, so it’s important to know what your numbers are, as reducing high levels lessens your risks of dying of heart disease.
Obesity – Obesity not only increases your risk of heart disease, it also causes changes in the structure and function of the heart. The more you weigh, the harder your heart has to pump, causing the heart muscle to stretch and thicken. This thickening of the heart muscle makes it more difficult for the heart to squeeze and relax with each heartbeat. Over time, heart failure may result. To lower these risks, lose weight if you need to and then maintain a healthy weight.
Diabetes – Type 2 diabetes mellitus substantially increases the lifetime risk of developing and dying from heart failure. With diabetes, the linings of the blood vessels thicken making it more difficult for blood to flow. When blood flow is impaired, heart problems or stroke can occur. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, paying close attention to your diet, exercising, and controlling your weight, blood pressure and blood sugar can often slow down or prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease.
Physical inactivity – Regular exercise has a favorable effect on many of the established risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Exercise promotes weight reduction, can help reduce blood pressure, and can favorably affect cholesterol levels. In diabetics, exercise positively affects the body’s ability to use insulin and control blood glucose levels. The effect of continued moderate exercise on overall cardiovascular risk when combined with other lifestyle modifications such as proper nutrition and smoking cessation can be very significant.
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