How to Have a Healthy Heart

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. The good news is that we have learned a lot about how to prevent, or in many cases postpone, that outcome. The heart is that muscle, about the size of a human hand (see figure), that works all the time to keep us supplied with blood and nutrients required to stay alive. When I was in medical school way back in the 1960s, men and women, but mostly men, were dying in their 50s from heart attacks. They still do, but not at the rate they used to. There are many reasons for this improvement and we will cover some of them below. Also, I invite you to read what the National Institute of Aging has to say about this subject. Their site lists several things to do to keep heart disease at bay.

Preventive Steps You Can Take

1. See Your Physician Regularly

It may seem self-serving, but it really is important to be followed at least twice a year by your doctor who can help you keep your heart healthy. There are well-known changes that occur as we age and you and your doctor need to keep an eye on them. The healthy heart tends to function normally as we age. However, there are pathological processes that go along with seniority. One of these is atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is an abnormal build-up of lipid deposits and calcium in the walls of our arteries. Lay people often refer to this as “hardening of the arteries.” This process contributes to high blood pressure which, if left untreated, can contribute to strokes and heart attacks. So one thing the doctor visit addresses is blood pressure. If high, it must be treated.

As mentioned, it is fat or lipids that build up in the arteries and this is known to be associated with our blood lipids. If our triglycerides or low-density-lipids (LDL) are abnormally high, there is a good chance that atherosclerosis is accelerating. On the other hand, if we have higher high-density-lipids (HDL) there is some protection. The only way to determine one’s blood cholesterol is by going to the doctor and having it measured with a simple blood test. Again, if things are abnormal, there are a variety of actions to take including possibly taking cholesterol-lowering drugs like the “statins.”

2. Exercise

Exercise is prescribed to keep the heart healthy. There is a lot of scientific data to show that regular exercise of 30 to 60 minutes every day is good for your heart. The more strenuous the exercise the better, but a brisk walk will do. If you can't exercise every day, try to do it at least five times a week. 

3. Eat Smart

It is also well known — and certainly in this column we have written much about — the value of a good diet and health. This is particularly true for the heart. A diet low in fat (cholesterol) and high in vegetables, fruits, and grain is proven to help prevent heart disease. Stay away from red meat, sugar, processed food, and salt. Obesity, or even just being overweight, is a risk factor for heart disease. A body mass index (BMI) of greater than 25 represents a cardiac risk. Your doctor should know your BMI and tell you if you are at risk. The BMI is calculated from your height and weight that should be measured with every doctor’s visit.

4. Monitor Your Heart Yourself

There are a number of symptoms that may be an expression of heart disease, as listed below. It is up to you to determine if any of these are new or worsening because, if they are, they could mean you have heart disease. One of the problems of aging is that many of the symptoms compatible with heart disease are also signs of normal aging. Nevertheless, pay attention to these for they may mean heart disease. 

Possible Symptoms of Heart Disease

  • Chest, shoulder, neck pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Swelling in legs, ankles
  • Inability to exercise
  • Irregular, slow, or very fast heart beat

Modified from: Healthy Heart

The symptoms that are mainly related to the heart exclusively are pain or tightness in the chest, jaw, arm, or throat. Cold sweats, nausea, and vomiting with the pain is particularly worrisome of heart disease or even a heart attack.

Swelling in the ankles, feet, or legs can mean poor heart function and these symptoms are commonly associated with tiredness or lack of stamina. Heart function that is no longer normal can be called “heart failure” and can be a result of damage to the heart muscle or from an improper heart valve function, like mitral valve incompetence.

Lightheadedness and dizziness may be heart-related or brain-related. If common, or increasing in severity, these are symptoms that require immediate investigation.

The regularity of your heart beat can indicate problems with the electrical system in your heart. A resting heart rate should range around 60 to 70 beats per minute and be very regular. If you sense or feel an irregular pulse, a very slow pulse, or a very rapid one at rest, then these are all signs that there may be a cardiac arrhythmia that needs immediate evaluation.

Finally, a heart attack often causes crushing chest pain, cold sweat, fainting, shortness of breath, and a general feeling of doom. If you or a friend experience these symptoms there is only one thing to do — call 911. Take some aspirin while you wait for the ambulance or first responders and never ignore the symptoms. If it is a heart attack, time to the chest pain center or emergency room is critically important. If it isn’t, better to be safe than sorry.

5. Drink Alcohol in Moderation

Excessive alcohol intake has been related to heart disease. Gentlemen get two drinks a day and women get one.

6. Do Not Smoke

Enough said.

The Bottom Line

Heart disease is common but preventable. Taking care of your heart can lead to a longer, healthier life. Enjoy.