HOUSTON (February 27, 2015)

February is National Heart Month, and heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 occur in people who have already had a heart attack. Heart attack leads to loss of the heart muscle, or the myocardium, which ultimately can lead to heart disease.

“Preventing that first heart attack is the key to lowering risk for heart disease,” said Periyanan Vaduganathan, MD, Cardiovascular Disease Specialist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital. “While you can’t change risk factors such as age, gender and family history, you can take action to improve your overall health, which helps lower your risk for a heart attack.”

As National Heart Month comes to an end, Memorial Hermann Southeast wants to keep you heart healthy all year long. Follow Dr. Vaduganathan’s five tips to help your heart stay strong, and to reduce the risk of a heart attack.

Control your blood pressure.

Blood pressure measures how hard your heart has to work to pump blood into the arteries and through the circulatory system. High blood pressure often presents no warning signs, which is why it is important to check your blood pressure regularly. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, increases the heart's workload. Blood pressure of less than 120/80 mmHG is normal. The higher number (systolic) represents the pressure when the heart is beating. The lower number (diastolic) represents the pressure when the heart is resting between beats.

Maintain your cholesterol.

Know your cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels - the higher your cholesterol level, the greater your risk of heart disease. High levels of cholesterol, a fatty wax-like substance, in the blood increase the amount of plaque that forms on the walls of the arteries. A total cholesterol level less than 200 mg/DL is ideal. The risk of heart attack doubles with a cholesterol level of 240 and increases four times at a level of 300. The individual ideal level of LDL (bad cholesterol) is less than 100 mg/dL, and of HDL (good cholesterol, carries extra fat away from the arteries) is more than 40 mg/dL.

Don’t smoke.

Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, including the heart, blood vessels, lungs, eyes, mouth, reproductive organs, bones, bladder, and digestive organs. Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than non-smokers. Nicotine narrows the blood vessels, causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Smoking also leads to the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries and increases the risk of blood clots.

Exercise routinely.

Exercise improves your heart's pumping efficiency, benefits circulation and increases overall strength and endurance. According to the latest American Heart Association/American College of Sports Medicine guidelines on physical activity, all healthy adults ages 18-65 should get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week. You can also break up those 30 minutes into three 10-minute sessions.

Eat heart-healthy foods.

Maintaining a healthy diet should help you control your weight and reduce the risk of obesity. Extra weight makes the heart work harder to supply the body with needed oxygen, and it raises cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk for diabetes. Try these suggestions to improve your dietary choices:

  • Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Choose lean meats and poultry without skin. Prepare them without added saturated fat and trans-fat
  • Select fat-free, 1 percent fat, and low-fat dairy products
  • Cut back on foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to reduce trans-fats
  • Aim to eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day
  • Limit beverages and processed foods with added sugars
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt. Aim to eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day
  • Don't overeat. Watch portion size and calories

Following these tips will reduce your risk for heart disease, but it cannot prevent heart disease. If you do experience chest pain, Dr. Vaduganathan emphasized the importance of heading to an accredited chest pain center immediately. Early detection and treatment of a heart attack is critical to saving the heart muscle, and ultimately saving lives. Memorial Hermann Southeast is one of only a handful of hospitals with a Chest Pain Center accredited by the Society for Chest Pain Centers, ensuring that patients receive the gold standard in emergent cardiac care.