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What are the top 8 threats to your heart health?

What are the top 8 threats to your heart health?

Your heart is a glorious and steadfast machine. It starts beating before you’re even born and will continue squeezing throughout your life. With each pulsating heartbeat, oxygen-rich blood is delivered to your organs, and waste products are delivered to your kidneys and lungs for processing. The grand majority of this life-giving process is on autopilot. However, you have a good deal of control over how to nurture your heart best—as well as how to impact its health negatively.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we believe that knowledge is power. It is part of our mission to educate our patients and help them elevate their own health—and one of the most fundamental ways to stay healthy is to be aware of what behaviors and circumstances are counterproductive. Here’s what you need to know about the top 8 threats to your heart health and where you can turn for support in developing healthy habits.

What is a heart health threat?

A heart health threat is a risk factor or circumstance that puts you at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease or heart disease. The most common cause of death in the United States, year over year, is heart disease. This is why avoiding threats to your heart is an impressive goal.

Here are the top 8 threats to heart health. You are in control of many of these heart health threats—but some may be out of your control.

Heart Health Threat #1: Smoking Cigarettes

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), smoking is a “major risk factor” for heart disease. The NIH reports that smoking cigarettes can affect your heart in several unhealthy ways. Smoking causes the buildup of plaque in your arteries. This process, known as atherosclerosis, can lead to a heart attack if the buildup occurs in the blood vessels of your heart. Atherosclerosis can also lead to a stroke if the buildup occurs in the blood vessels that send blood to your brain. If plaques build in the vessels that supply your legs, you may experience chronic pain, poor circulation, poor healing wounds, or even amputations.

In addition to forming plaques, smoking also causes your blood to become thicker and form blood clots. This can further increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that even five cigarettes a day can have these unwanted effects. However, you can significantly improve your risk of developing heart disease if you ditch this heart health threat. In fact, after five years of not smoking, a former smoker will have the same risk of a stroke as someone who has never smoked.

Heart Health Threat #2: Leading a Sedentary Lifestyle

Your heart is a powerful muscle. Like any other muscle, when you force it to work harder, it becomes stronger and more efficient. For this reason, staying active (exercising 150 minutes weekly and not staying stationary for prolonged periods) is critical for your heart’s health. Getting up and moving around periodically keeps your heart strong and nimble. Conversely, leading a sedentary lifestyle can compromise your heart’s health. Experts note that even if you exercise thirty minutes a day, if you’re sitting around for the other 23 hours of the day, it can be hard on your heart.

Luckily, many tools can help you stay on track when it comes to moving more throughout the day. Try a step counter or fitness tracker to see where your baseline is, and then make a goal to increase your step count or movement incrementally. Your heart will thank you!

Heart Health Threat #3: Poor Nutrition

What you feed your heart matters. If your diet consists of high amounts of simple sugars, processed foods, and unhealthy fats, your heart health will suffer. This is because eating a diet that is high in sugar can make you more likely to develop diabetes, which can damage the blood vessels of your heart. Eating unhealthy fats can lead to high cholesterol, which can also compromise your heart health because this may cause a buildup of plaque inside the walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis).

Luckily, if you crave almost anything, it’s possible to find a healthy version. Even small steps (like going from drinking two sodas a day to two sodas a week) can make a large difference in your heart health.

Heart Health Threat #4: Genetics

Even with sufficient physical exercise and a heart-friendly diet, many people have conditions that run in their families that pose a risk to their heart health. Knowing about your family’s health history and discussing it with your healthcare provider can help you minimize your risks as much as possible. It can also make a difference when it comes to early heart disease screening or prevention measures.

Heart Health Threat #5: Other Medical Conditions

Many medical conditions pose a threat to your heart health. These include the following:

  • High Blood Pressure: This condition, also known as hypertension, may be related to an underlying problem with your heart. However, other factors may lead to hypertension, as well. Having continuous high blood pressure can put stress on your blood vessels, making them more vulnerable to developing plaques, and it can also weaken your heart valves.
  • Diabetes: This condition is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Diabetes can cause damage to your blood vessels, as well as your nerves. Both of these can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • High Cholesterol: When you have high cholesterol, you’re more at risk of developing plaques in your arteries because plaques are made of cholesterol.
  • Thyroid disease: Your thyroid hormones are involved in many processes in your body. Having thyroid hormone levels that are either too high or too low can put your heart at risk.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This condition increases your likelihood of heart disease because the chronic inflammation present in this condition can stress your heart. Experts note that people with RA are twice as likely as those without RA to have a heart attack.

Having a medical condition that increases your risk of heart disease does not mean that the threat to your heart is inevitable. You can ensure that you’re addressing all potential obstacles by getting routine exams with your medical provider.

Heart Health Threat #6: Lack of Sleep

Did you know that tossing and turning at night can affect your heart? The CDC notes that insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep) is connected to a higher risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. This is because sleep is a time when your blood pressure is typically lower, and your body has a chance to repair. If you’re not sleeping, your blood pressure may be consistently higher than ideal, which can put stress on your heart.

Heart Health Threat #7: High Stress

When you’re undergoing high stress –because of work, relationships, mental health concerns, or otherwise—then your body responds with the release of cortisol, an important stress hormone. Cortisol is very critical for helping you get through a stressful moment; however, chronically high levels of cortisol can be hard on your heart. In fact, experts note that high stress levels can increase your blood sugar, your blood cholesterol, and your blood pressure—all of which are threats to your heart health. 

Heart Health Threat #8: Binge Drinking

Medical professionals believe that drinking no alcohol or drinking a small amount of alcohol is the most beneficial when it comes to heart health. While some alcohol may not be a glaring heart health threat, heavy drinking or binge drinking can be particularly hard on your heart. Experts have shown that drinking six or more drinks in one sitting can cause measurable injury to the heart and inflammation.

How to Avoid the Top 8 Heart Health Threats

It can feel overwhelming to read through a list of what not to do when it comes to heart health, especially if you can apply many of the above categories to your current situation. However, taking back control of your heart health (and your overall health, too) comes down to a few key principles:

  • Move your body every day, focusing on exercises and activities that you enjoy and are more likely to do.
  • Eat a balanced diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, lean meats, grains, and healthy fats. Many medical organizations agree that the Mediterranean diet is the most heart-healthy eating plan to adopt.
  • Minimize unhealthy behaviors like smoking and binge drinking.
  • Sleep the recommended amount of 7 to 9 hours nightly.
  • Stay up to date with annual physicals and other medical examinations to help keep any underlying medical conditions in check.
  • Reduce your stress level as much as possible.

How to learn more about living a heart-healthy lifestyle

To learn more about how a heart-healthy lifestyle applies to your personal situation, consider meeting with one of our family medicine or internal medicine healthcare providers. They can help evaluate your daily routine and identify areas for improvement, as well as highlight the progress you’re already making when it comes to your heart health.