February is American Heart Month!
In this post:
The Really Important Stuff – When to Go to the Emergency Room
If you think you or someone near you might be having a heart attack:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Chew and swallow an aspirin while waiting for emergency help.
- If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin, take it.
How do you know if someone is having a heart attack? Here’s a list of symptoms that might be experienced during a heart attack. They can be different for men and women, and aren’t the same for everyone. When it comes to heart attacks, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so don’t hesitate to call emergency services and get care if you have these symptoms.
- Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort
- Arm, neck, jaw or shoulderblade pain
- Shortness of breath
- Heartburn or indigestion
Preventing Heart Disease, Heart Attack, and Stroke
“Heart disease” is a common phrase you might hear your doctor talk about, but what does it really mean? Heart disease can refer to many types of heart conditions—including heart attacks and strokes, and also many different heart conditions that commonly lead to heart attacks and strokes! So, to prevent heart attacks and strokes, we want to prevent chronic heart diseases that cause them, such as coronary artery disease. To do that, we have to prevent or avoid the underlying causes of heart disease, such as high blood pressure or bad cholesterol, diabetes, overweight and obesity, tobacco use, unhealthy diet, low physical activity, and excessive alcohol use.
That’s a lot of prevention, so here it is again, in picture form:
High Blood Pressure
Chronic high blood pressure, also called “hypertension,” is when you have blood pressures that are consistently above normal. High blood pressure, left uncontrolled, eventually causes damage to your heart and arteries and to the rest of your body. It can lead to strokes, heart failure, heart attack, and kidney disease, among other complications. Even if you don’t feel ill, high blood pressure still needs to be monitored and treated, because the damage can build up over time without any sign.
When you get your blood pressure taken at a primary care visit, your provider will tell you if it is high, and what your target pressure should be, as it can be different based on your age and other medical conditions. Generally, if you have hypertension, you want your blood pressure at home to at least be below 140/90. That means your systolic pressure should be below 140, and your diastolic pressure should be below 90. For a handy graphic guide from the American Heart Association that breaks down target blood pressures and how to read them, go here.
High blood pressure is one of many risk factors for heart disease. You can lower your blood pressure by:
- Getting about 30 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week
- Quitting smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Losing weight or staying at a healthy weight
- Managing your stress
- Taking any blood pressure medications as your healthcare provider prescribes them
You may have heard of “good cholesterol” or “bad cholesterol,” or maybe just “high cholesterol.” Cholesterol is a complicated topic, so here’s the short version: you want to have low levels of bad cholesterol and high levels of good cholesterol, but not too much total cholesterol. For a more detailed summary of what cholesterol is and what all those numbers on your lab reports mean, go here.
Bad cholesterol, or high total cholesterol, causes build-up called “plaque” in your blood vessels. This plaque eventually blocks the blood flow to your heart and can cause a heart attack or stroke.
To avoid bad cholesterol or too much total cholesterol, avoid eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats, and make sure you get plenty of physical activity. Avoiding obesity and preventing diabetes, or keeping your diabetes well-controlled, also helps reduce your risk of bad or high total cholesterol.
What kind of diet is “high in saturated and trans fats?” These fats are commonly found in animal products such as cheese, dairy, and fatty meats. On the other hand, eating foods that have high amounts of fiber or unsaturated fats, such as oatmeal, beans, avocados, olive oil, and nuts, can help manage bad cholesterol and improve good cholesterol. Choosing lean meats or seafood, fat-free dairy products, and eating lots of whole grains and fruits and vegetables also helps you avoid bad cholesterol.
Diabetes, especially when poorly controlled, often goes hand-in-hand with high blood pressure—which we’ve already covered. Diabetes also causes sugars to build up in your blood and prevents oxygen and important nutrients from reaching everywhere they need to go, like your brain. This contributes to your risk for stroke. If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about aways to keep it under control, maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and reduce your risk for complications like heart disease.
Diet & Exercise
You may have noticed a common theme throughout this post so far. While we hate to belabor the point, it’s important to know that being at a healthy weight and getting regular physical activity helps prevent the underlying conditions that lead to heart disease and heart attacks or stroke. Excess body fat from being overweight or obese contributes to unhealthy cholesterol and high blood pressure, and creates strain on your internal organs, including your heart. The good news is, heart-healthy diets are also usually weight-healthy diets, and physical activity can help regulate your weight and improve your heart health.
If you smoke, you’ve probably heard your doctor say this many times. Smoking in any form, and tobacco use in any form, is bad for your health. It damages your blood vessels and increases your risk for heart disease. If you smoke, chew tobacco, vape, or use e-cigarettes, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease and heart attack or stroke. There are many resources for quitting—most of them free. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider to learn more and start your journey toward quitting.
Too much alcohol can contribute to many bad health conditions, most notably high blood pressure—which again, we already covered. For quick reference, men should have no more than 2 drinks per day, and women no more than 1 drink per day. If you drink more than that, consider reducing your alcohol intake.
Where to Start
If you’re worried about your heart health, talk to a primary care doctor or healthcare provider. They can assess your risk factors for heart attack or stroke and order any labs or tests you need. If you do have heart disease, they can refer you to a cardiologist and help coordinate your care. It’s also important to know your family medical history, so talk to your biological family members, like your parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc, to find out what kind of risk runs in your family.
If you’re looking for resources for all that prevention we just talked about, your doctor can help with that too! And in Alaska, we’re fortunate to have free programs for weight loss, prevention and management of diabetes, lowering blood pressure, and quitting smoking. Go to freshstart.alaska.gov to learn more.
To schedule a visit with a primary care doctor or health provider, even if you don’t have insurance or a lot of money for doctor’s visits, call us today at 907-455-4567, option 1.
American Heart Association. Blood Pressure Categories. https://www.heart.org/-/media/files/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/hbp-rainbow-chart-english.pdf
American Heart Association. Understand Your Risks to Prevent a Heart Attack. www.goredforwomen.org. Published December 6, 2022. Accessed February 10, 2023. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About High Blood Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published February 6, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/about.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About High Blood Pressure (Hypertension). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published May 18, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart attack facts & statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Health Information: About Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published May 14, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/about.htm