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Think Smart for a Healthy Heart
Excerpt By Janice Billingsley, HealthScoutNews

(HealthScoutNews) -- Scientists have done their job when it comes to heart disease research, identifying the lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of heart attacks by up to 50 percent.

Now, what's your excuse?

"Let's not make the date of your first heart attack the same [as] when you make the decision to reduce your risks," says Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, the medical director of Vanderbilt University's Women's Heart Institute.

Cardiovascular disease, which includes strokes as well as heart attacks, is the leading cause of death in this country, responsible for 60 percent of deaths annually, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

For women, the risks posed by cardiovascular disease are far greater than breast cancer -- it accounts for one out of every 2.4 deaths among women, while breast cancer is responsible for one in every 30 deaths.

But the good news is that you can take plenty of steps to protect yourself -- if you don't wait until it's too late.

"You can reduce your chances for a heart attack by 50 percent by taking preventative measures," says Dr. Charles Bertrand, a cardiologist and professor at the New York Medical College.

The five biggest threats to heart health that you can control are high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and diet, the doctors say.

To maintain a healthy heart, here are their recommendations:

  • Blood pressure: Check your blood pressure at least twice a year, either at the doctor's office or even at the machines in drugstores or supermarkets, Bertrand says. Normal blood pressure is 120/80, and it should be no higher than 140/90. If it exceeds that level, see your doctor, who can recommend dietary changes or medication.

  • Cholesterol: There are three components of cholesterol to pay attention to: low density (LDL) cholesterol, often called the "bad' cholesterol because it can clog blood vessels such as arteries; high density (HDL) cholesterol, called "good" cholesterol because is tends to carry excess cholesterol back to the liver; and fats called triglycerides, high levels of which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, according to the AHA.

    The standard recommendation is to keep your total cholesterol level under 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood. But, Robertson says, "You could have a 200 total and still have low HDL and high LDL. It's important to know the breakdown."

    Your HDL count should be at least 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood, your LDL count should be no more than 100 milligrams per deciliter, and your triglicerides should be under 150 milligrams per deciliter, Robertson says. If you're outside that range, you should talk to your doctor.

    Exercise: Robertson recommends 30 minutes of aerobic activity four or five times a week. "But it doesn't have to be all in one chunk," she says. "You can break it up." For instance, instead of taking a brisk walk for half an hour, you can take three 10-minute walks during the day.

    Bertrand adds, "You can reduce the incidence of a heart attack by 40 percent by walking a mile a day."

    One of the keys to getting more exercise regularly is to first make simple changes in your routine. For instance, take the stairs instead of the elevator. And then find activities you like, such as tennis or gardening, and do them on a regular basis, he says.

    Smoking: Quitting is critical because almost 30 percent of deaths from coronary disease can be attributed to smoking, the AHA says. And although it can be very tough to quit, the good news is that there have never been more products to help you kick the habit. "The new medications that help withstand those cravings really work. So do stop-smoking programs," Robertson says.

    Diet: Bertrand says, "You should keep within 5 percent of your recommended weight." Exercise and a proper diet will help you lose weight and keep it at a healthy level, he adds.

Making these lifestyle changes can be difficult, Robertson acknowledges. "But if you start thinking about yourself as a healthy person and project yourself into the future as a healthy person, then you can look at these changes as opportunities rather than barriers," she says.

What To Do

To find out your risk for heart attack or stroke, you can take this quiz designed by the American Heart Association. The AHA also offers a wealth of information on how to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Want to know what your proper weight is? Use this body mass index calculator.

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