Be the steward of your own heart health — here’s how

February is American Heart Month, a perfect time to strengthen cardiovascular health. And, says Dr. Allen Taylor, there’s so much that people can do — without medical intervention — to improve their heart health.

Taylor, chairman of cardiology at Medstar Health Heart and Vascular Institute, shared details during WTOP’s Get on Top of Your Health series about new research on heart health as well as things people need to know and do to help prevent heart disease.

“We focus on heart disease one month of the year — in February, Valentine’s Day. It should be an all-time active, continuous activity. Know your heart risk, know the heart risk of those around you. Small steps can have a big impact over a long period of time,” Taylor said.

Know 4 numbers directly tied to your heart’s well-being

That heart disease is the number one killer in the United States is a widely reported statistic. In fact, 1 million people in the U.S. die from heart and blood vessel disease each year.

That’s why it’s important that everyone track four key numbers, Taylor said. If any of the four are beyond the healthy threshold, they contribute to heart and blood vessel disease:

Blood pressure: “An optimal blood pressure now is below 120 over 80,” he said.

Cholesterol: “We commonly measure cholesterol risks through LDL, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol,” Taylor said. “And while an optimal value is below 100, the average LDL in the U.S. is above 130. Our average normal is, in fact, too high.”

Body mass index: BMI is the relationship between how tall someone is and what someone weighs. “For men and women, a BMI of over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 would be considered significantly overweight or in an obese category. And that contributes to heart and blood vessel disease.”

Blood sugar: Blood sugar is easily measured. Some people know the test as hemoglobin A1C, which measures someone’s average blood sugar levels over the past three months. “Your blood sugar should be below 100 when you’re fasting,” he said.

Know if other factors put you at risk for heart disease

Anyone who has a family history of heart disease is at increased risk, Taylor said. “Then, it’s how you live, what you eat, how physically active you are and other health habits like tobacco or marijuana use.”

It’s never too late to quit smoking since the risk of heart disease starts going down as soon as someone quits. As for smoking marijuana, Taylor said he and his colleagues are finding that more young people are having heart attacks, and their only risk factor is marijuana use.

“It concerns us. The observational science, as well as some of the science on marijuana, is that it’s actually very harmful from a heart disease standpoint,” he said. “And it’s showing up as heart attacks in the young.”

New research offers insights into more heart health factors

Taylor also shared some findings from recent research that provide some guidance on additional ways people can improve the overall healthiness of their hearts.

  • Achieve ‘Goldilocks’ exercise: Although exercise is important for heart health, new studies found that the type of exercise makes a difference.

“If you could do one thing that would lower your heart risk the most, it would be to be more physically active. Estimates are that regular physical activity lowers heart disease by nearly 50%,” Taylor said.

Thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise is best. But research shows too much exercise can be counterproductive for heart health.

“Folks that do vigorous, intense, prolonged exercise per week — more than 180 minutes of vigorous exercise — you actually start to lose some of the benefits on a heart health basis,” Taylor said.

  • Avoid outdoor air pollution: Pollution can have a significant effect on heart health. Knowing the air quality before leaving home can help.

“What we’re learning is that the more you’re exposed to particulate matter, the higher your heart disease and cancer risk, for example. And while you have to breathe, there may be days you decide to exercise indoors rather than outdoors, if the particulate matter levels are very high,” Taylor said.

  • Don’t rush for the baby aspirin or fish oil: For decades, both have been recommended to treat heart disease.

“Aspirin provides a little bit of benefit from a heart disease risk, but it also causes excess bleeding. Recent studies have shown that the net effect or benefit of aspirin in people who don’t already have heart disease is a wash,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, fish oil is not helpful for heart disease prevention.

“Statins or cholesterol medications are really the new aspirin. They lower risk, even though they treat cholesterol. If you’re at risk, you need cholesterol medication,” Taylor said.

  • Speak up about cancer history: It’s estimated there are 20 million cancer survivors in the U.S. New research shows that cancer treatment, the body’s generation of cancer and its response all tend to stimulate heart and blood vessel disease — an undesirable secondary effect.

“So, be a little more proactive. Make sure that your doctor knows you’ve had cancer and that you should be thinking about your heart risk,” he said.

Signs that you should listen to your heart

By the time someone experiences heart disease symptoms, it’s critical and people need to seek medical attention, Taylor said. Symptoms may come in the form of chest discomfort, often pressure and burning in the center of the chest that comes with activity and goes away with rest, or breathlessness.

“A common misconception is that men and women have different experiences around the symptoms. Typically not, but they may report it differently. Older folks may experience heart disease quite differently, and oftentimes, symptoms can be a bit more subtle or soft, such as unusual fatigue,” he said.

Establishing a relationship with a doctor is key. A doctor will be able to assess whether someone has enough contributing risk factors to warrant preventive medications, Taylor said.

“Everyone should have a physician or a clinician in their life that can calculate that heart risk.”

Learn more now about MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, including Medstar Georgetown University Hospital and MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Also, discover additional tips and tactics to get on top of your health on WTOP.

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