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Be Smart When It Comes to Your Heart

Simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of heart disease, doctors emphasize. And it's never too early to start. Many young adults and even children are showing warning signs of heart disease that could lead to major health problems later in life.

While genetics play some role in the development of cardiovascular disease, there are many risk factors that are what doctors call "modifiable." With a little effort, you can eliminate or control them.

Here are six important strategies to minimize your risk:

  • Stop smoking. On this score, most are doing pretty well. Since 1965, smoking in the United States has declined by more than 40 percent among people aged 18 and older, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
  • Exercise. "The minimum amount should be the equivalent of brisk walking for 30 minutes three to four times a week," says Dr. Zi-Jian Xu, a cardiologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in California. Dr. Kris Vijay, a cardiologist and director of clinical research and heart failure at the Arizona Heart Institute, urges people to do even a bit more -- 30 minutes five times a week, or two and a half hours total weekly. He tells people to jog, play tennis, walk -- do anything to keep moving.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. "A major risk factor for heart disease is obesity," says Vijay. "We know that one third of America is now obese. That obesity is perpetuating the chain" of risk factors, he says. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, each of which boosts the risk of heart disease. Keep your body mass index (BMI) below 25 -- the recommended cutoff for optimal health.
  • Eat healthy. That means a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, few fried foods, and go easy on the sugar. "Don't add sugar," Vijay warns. "It's not a good thing. The natural sugars in bananas and oranges are better than plain refined sugar." The AHA recommends a nutrition plan that includes five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day; six or more servings of grain products; fat-free and low-fat milk products; fish; beans; skinless poultry; and lean meats. Fats and oils such as tub margarines or olive oils should have 2 grams or less of saturated fat per tablespoon, the AHA says.
  • Control high blood pressure. One in four adults has high blood pressure, the AHA estimates. Exercise and eating healthfully, paying particular attention to lowering salt intake, can help lower blood pressure. If those strategies don't work, blood-pressure lowering medications can be used.
  • Manage diabetes. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease, the heart association warns. Type 1 diabetes can be controlled with insulin. Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes can be controlled through proper nutrition and exercise.

If your family doctor or internist doesn't bring up the need to pursue a heart-healthy lifestyle, you should broach the subject. "A lot of primary-care doctors have not paid enough attention to risk factor modification," Xu says.

Then there are the doctors who pay attention but the patients who don't. "Patients have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and they tend to ignore it and don't take medication or don't take enough," Xu says.

More information

The AHA offers a guide to healthy nutrition. To calculate your body mass index, click here.


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