Every year over 650,000 Americans die from heart disease, making it the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. According to the CDC, one person dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease in our country.
Further complicating matters is how COVID-19 has changed our lives. We have become more sedentary, eating poorly and missing out on our usual follow-up medical evaluations and preventive health maintenance. In fact, according to an American Heart Association report, "unhealthy eating habits, increase consumption of alcohol, lack of physical activity and the mental toll of quarantine isolation and even fear of contracting the virus in healthcare settings, all can adversely impact a person's cardiovascular risk."
Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), which is the most common type of heart disease, occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed. This is due to buildup of cholesterol and other plaque on the walls of the coronary arteries. As this progresses and the artery narrows, there is decreased blood flow with nutrients to the heart muscle itself, resulting in such symptoms as chest pain and shortness of breath. It can also lead to heart attacks and subsequent arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, or even death.
Some cardiovascular risk factors are out of our control, including family history, age and ethnicity. Most people with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease are over the age of 65, while African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are at increased risk of dying from heart disease.
The impact of other risk factors for ACSVD, which include diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, smoking, inactivity and obesity, can be decreased when properly addressed and/or treated.
One thing we can do to mitigate our risk of developing heart disease is knowing our cholesterol numbers and controlling them. Cholesterol is broken down into HDL (healthy, which you want to be high – at least over 45 mg/dL, and the higher the better); LDL (bad cholesterol, which we want to be low – under 100 mg/dL) and triglycerides (which should be less than 150 mg/dL). Knowing your cholesterol numbers will allow you to be proactive and start on a program to decrease your cardiovascular risk.
The best ways for improving your risk include:
- Daily activity/exercise. At least 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week has been shown to decrease cardiovascular risk.
- A heart-healthy diet. This should be a lifestyle change. A low saturated fat/low-cholesterol regime such as the Mediterranean diet – which is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and nuts – has been shown to be associated with a wide range of health benefits, including reduction of heart disease. Such diets have been shown to not only improve your cholesterol but also may lower your risk of hypertension and diabetes.
- Regular healthcare screenings. During your annual checkup, your physician will screen you for blood pressure cholesterol and diabetes.
- No smoking. And if you do smoke, speak to your doctor about ways to stop.
- Medications. With some patients, even with the best of exercise and diet, medications will be required to decrease your cardiovascular risk of an event.
Fighting heart disease is just that – a fight. But you do not need to do it alone. Consult your physician, who can guide you to the right diet, exercise program and medications (if required), and who can refer you to a specialist in nutrition and diet to gain an invaluable ally in the battle against heart disease.