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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022


Take steps to lower risk of heart disease

Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions, also known as cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), including diseased vessels, structural problems and blood clots. This disease category is common, representing one in every four deaths in the United States. The financial cost of heart disease is staggering – loss of productivity and health-care costs, including medications, total around $360 billion annually. And with CVDs being the leading cause of death, particularly among most racial and ethnic groups, prioritizing heart health is essential to a longer, healthier life. While some factors like age and family history are outside of our control, there are numerous things we can do to lower the risk of heart disease.


Tobacco cessation, or quitting smoking, vaping or using other tobacco products, is the most important thing you can do for your heart. For Louisianans, a free resource at quitwithusla.org can help one prepare to quit, actually quit, and make the results last. Prescription medicine to help stop is also an option that a medical provider may assist with.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure causes the heart to thicken and stiffen, creating small tears on the inside of your blood vessels; this increases the risk of having a heart attack, heart failure, stroke and even kidney disease. Blood pressure also tends to rise as we age, while other risk factors — like smoking, physical inactivity and diabetes — can contribute to an even higher pressure. Sometimes high blood pressure can be treated by managing external factors, but a medical provider may prescribe medications to manage persistently high blood pressure. Different medications work best for different people; it is acceptable to try more than one medication to gain control. Be patient with the treatment plan as your provider tailors medicines to your body.

High Blood Sugar

Diabetes causes heart disease. For patients with uncontrolled diabetes, the risk increases substantially. While diet and exercise are important in managing diabetes, most patients need medication to control their blood sugar. Patients 35 or older should ask their provider for an A1c test to screen for diabetes. A level of 6.5% or higher indicates diabetes. Patients with a level between 5.7% and 6.4% are at high risk for developing diabetes and should partner with their provider for help with prevention.

Physical Inactivity

Not exercising increases the risk of heart disease. There is no need to start an intense plan like CrossFit or marathons, although those are great options. Even moderate exercise decreases the risk for heart disease. Some fun options for moderate exercise include dancing, hiking, water aerobics or doubles tennis. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week – only 20 minutes a day or about the length of a TV sitcom. Short on time? You can also opt for 11 minutes of vigorous exercise a day. This type of exercise includes swimming laps, running, climbing multiple flights of stairs and aerobics.

Save money on that gym membership! Running or brisk walking is effective, free and can be done almost anywhere. Canned foods or water bottles work well as light weights. If exercise bores you, listen to music, watch a TV show while you work out, or find a friend to exercise with. What is most important is that you make it fun for you!

Overweight or Obesity

Carrying extra weight in the form of fat increases the risk of heart disease. The good news is that treating obesity is a key component of treating high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and high cholesterol. Weight reduction can lead to an improvement in all these risk factors. Attempting to lose weight can be discouraging, but a weight loss of only 5% body weight can make a significant difference. Achieve weight loss through decreased calorie intake, increased physical activity and/or prescription medications. If body mass index (BMI) is 35 or above, a patient may qualify for bariatric surgery — another effective weight loss tool. BMI categories differ for adults and children. If unsuccessful with diet and exercise, a weight loss specialist can provide additional guidance.

High Cholesterol

High cholesterol is a mixed bag. Some people may have high cholesterol based on their family history, despite a healthy, low-fat diet. Some can improve their cholesterol with a low-fat diet. Avoid saturated fat (mostly from meat) and trans-fat altogether. Some processed foods and fast-food chains have moved away from using trans fats, so check before you buy; vendors that do not know, you are better off eating somewhere else. There are also highly effective medications to treat high cholesterol that other methods cannot control.

Change is hard, but there are many different solutions for improving heart health. Trying to break a bunch of habits at once can leave one feeling defeated. The best approach is to start small. Pick one thing from the list above and focus on tracking improvements. If you get off track, don’t give up! The average person quits smoking about eight times before permanently quitting. Everyone tends to gain weight during the holidays, especially Mardi Gras. These temporary setbacks are not the end of the journey. Having a friend or family member as an accountability partner can help you stick to a plan or re-start if needed. Make a change today and give yourself the gift of a healthy heart.

Rebecca Clawson, PA-C, clinical assistant professor Physician Assistant Program, School of Allied Health Professions at LSU Health Shreveport.


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