Heart disease has long been the leading cause of adult death in the United States. Research has shown that current and former service members are at higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks than civilians.
Coronary artery disease, or when the arteries that supply blood to the heart narrow or become blocked, is the most common type of heart disease. Loss of blood flow to the heart can lead to a heart attack.
Some risk factors for heart disease are genetic – including your gender, family history, and race or ethnicity – and some are based on your lifestyle, including stress, smoking, diet, exercise, and sleeping habits. While you cannot change your genetics, the choices you make as part of a healthy lifestyle can keep your heart healthy.
Below are 10 Heart Health Suggestions from Total Force Fitness from medical experts at Human Performance Resources at CHAMP, part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Her team of scientists, specialists, and support staff translate research into evidence-based resources to help warfighters and their families achieve full fitness and optimize performance.
1. Get moving. According to Dr. Jonathan Scott, an assistant professor in the Department of Military and Emergency Medicine at Uniformed Services University, one of the easiest ways to improve your heart health is to do at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-high intensity activity five days a week. This can ward off other risks for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high levels of “bad” cholesterol, or being overweight. “The important thing is that you don’t have to do 30 minutes of activity at once,” said Dr. Scott. “You can break this down into 10-minute chucks, such as a 10-minute walk after dinner.”
2. Make healthy food choices. Aim for a diet that consists of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Try to track your eating habits to determine how many calories you are consuming (what you eat and drink) and what calories you are consuming (energy you use up during exercise and metabolic processes such as breathing and digestion). Dr. Scott recommends, “When it comes to choosing healthy foods, think about what to add to your diet instead of what to cut out. It could be so easy to try a new vegetable this week or add 1 piece of fruit to your daily routine.
3. Know your family’s medical history. Awareness of your family’s health history can help you take preventative measures and stay ahead of heart disease before it becomes a problem. Ask family members about their health and discuss your risks with your doctor.
4. Get enough sleep. Adults who sleep less than 7 hours a night are more likely to have health problems, including high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and heart attacks. (Nearly 50% of those who have served in the military report not getting enough sleep, compared with 36% for civilians.)
5. Keep your cholesterol under control. Your eating habits can affect your cholesterol and triglycerides. These are waxy substances in the bloodstream that can clog the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. AHA suggests that adults aged 20 and over have their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years.
6. Manage Diabetes. High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control your heart. If you have diabetes, knowing your Diabetes ABCs can help you take control of your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
7. Monitor your sanity. Although the link between stress and heart disease is not clear, chronic stress can make people cope with unhealthy ways such as smoking, drinking too much, or overeating. Stress can also increase your blood pressure, a known risk factor for heart disease. Make stress your ally to manage it effectively. Symptoms of depression can also worsen cardiovascular health, especially if you eat unhealthy foods or lead a sedentary lifestyle. Remember, help is available and mental fitness can improve your heart health.
8. Stop or never start smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. The good news is that after 1 year of smoking cessation, your risk of heart disease drops significantly. Think about why you smoke and why you haven’t quit, then take steps to quit the habit once and for all.
9. Drink alcohol in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests 1-2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. If you drink too much alcohol, the levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood rise, which can lead to heart disease. While you may have heard that some alcohol (red wine, for example) can be good for you, the research is still mixed. If you aren’t already drinking alcohol, AHA recommends skipping it entirely to keep your heart healthy. So stick to “no”.
10. Watch your blood pressure. High blood pressure or high blood pressure can lead to heart attack or stroke. Get your blood pressure measured on your yearly body and know what the numbers mean.
When it comes to heart disease there are some risk factors that you cannot change. However, with a healthy lifestyle and a Total Force Fitness approach, you can lower your risk of heart disease and keep your heart healthy and happy.