February is Heart Month!
Healthcare professionals celebrate Heart Month throughout February, kicking off with National Wear Red Day® on February 2. On this icon day of American Heart Month, women especially are encouraged to learn more about their heart disease risk and how building healthy habits can reduce it. Block Island Health Services would like to remind everyone, men and women, that heart disease is preventable.
Cardiovascular disease is the umbrella term for all problems that affect the heart and blood vessels, including coronary artery disease which can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD). In the US, more than 800,000 people die each year of cardiovascular diseases.
One type of cardiovascular disease is “heart disease.” This term refers to conditions of the heart’s structure and function. The most common is coronary heart disease, or coronary artery disease. This condition occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries surrounding the heart, reducing blood flow to heart muscle, and depriving it of oxygen and nutrients. One result of this reduced flow is “angina” or heart-related chest pain. Another is plaque rupture, leading to complete blockage of the artery, the most common cause of a heart attack. Plaque buildup is not isolated to the heart’s arteries; all the body’s arteries can develop plaque. Plaque in the brain can decrease or completely block blood flow to brain tissues, causing a stroke. Likening this to a heart attack, you may hear a stroke referred to as a “brain attack.”
Symptoms of developing plaque in arteries can vary among individuals. Men more commonly experience “typical” symptoms, such as chest pains with physical activity. For women, symptoms may be more subtle and develop as a decreased ability to do normal daily activities due to fatigue or feeling out of breath.
Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure (hypertension), elevated cholesterol levels (hyperlipidemia), being overweight or obese, having diabetes, being a tobacco smoker, and not being physically active.
Blood pressure (BP) refers to the force of blood being moved through your arteries as your heart pumps. It is measured by two numbers: systolic pressure (top number) and diastolic pressure (bottom number). Systolic pressure is when your heart is pushing blood into your body and diastolic pressure is between beats when your heart is relaxed. A healthy BP is less than 120/80. One consistently over 130/80 is considered hypertension. Once a person’s BP is consistently higher than 130/80, a healthcare professional may make recommendations on how to lower it. Many individuals think of themselves as having “white coat hypertension”; when a person’s readings are higher in the healthcare office than when checking at home. This is one reason a healthcare professional might ask you to check your BP at home and bring your results to an office visit.
Hyperlipidemia refers to elevated levels of cholesterol in your bloodstream. Cholesterol is a fatty substance utilized by your body to make hormones, vitamin D, and help digest food. Your body manufactures all the cholesterol needed for these functions. Any excess is related to either your diet or your body’s inability to remove the excess as it should. Your cholesterol lab report contains four levels: total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides. HDL (“good” cholesterol) helps your body get rid of excess cholesterol in the bloodstream. LDL (“bad” cholesterol) deposits cholesterol inside your blood vessels causing plaque buildup. Triglycerides are a type of fat that your body uses for energy. When you have an annual wellness examination at BIHS, we will run your cholesterol panel and use those results to help you understand your risk of developing heart disease. Exercise habits and dietary choices can improve the ratio between HDL and LDL and medications can improve the lipid panel.
Being overweight or obese means that one has an excess of body fat. This can increase levels of LDL, lower HDL, and increase triglyceride levels. Your BMI is calculated by comparing your height and weight at your physical exam. You can also find BMI charts online. A BMI of 25-29.9 is considered overweight and 30 or above is obese. Another at-home assessment is to take a waist measurement. A healthy waist size is less than 35 inches for women who are not pregnant and less than 40 inches for men.
Having diabetes increases heart disease risk. Fortunately, maintaining a healthy weight and staying physically active reduces the risk of developing diabetes and helps you improve blood sugar control. Not being physically active is an independent risk factor for heart disease, so OUTCH, get off that couch! We are fortunate to have beautiful places to walk here on Block Island and your heart disease risk can be reduced by just 30 minutes of physical activity five times per week.
If you are curious about your heart disease risk or have questions about your cholesterol, blood pressure, or ways to be more physically active, BIHS invites you to see one of our providers to discuss all your questions.