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Taking Care of Your Heart

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Hands forming a heartMADISON, WIS. — Taking care of your heart is hard.
 
Or it can certainly seem that way. Heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the United States—that part is easy to grasp. Yet every week seems to bring a news report or study that identifies a new threat to one of your body's most vital organs.
 
But heart health doesn't have to be confusing or complicated. To simplify, heart experts at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have boiled the question down to the three best—and the three worst—things you can do for your heart.
 
"If you can incorporate these things into your daily life, you're giving yourself a much better chance to enjoy a long and healthy life, free of heart disease," says Dr. James Stein, director of preventive cardiology at UW Hospital and Clinics and professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
 
Let's start with the bad news. If you're doing any of the following, you're increasing your chances of heart disease.

 

 

Puffing. If you're one of the millions of Americans who are still smoking, know this: With every puff, you're dramatically increasing your chances of suffering a life-threatening heart attack. The chemicals in tobacco smoke raise blood pressure, reduce good cholesterol (HDL) and damage your blood vessels. But if you can find a way to quit and stay away from smoking permanently, you can reduce your risk almost immediately, and eliminate tobacco's negative effects within three years.

"There's really no more significant thing you can do to improve the health of your heart than quitting smoking," says Dr. Michael Fiore, who heads the UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. "It's startling how much it can reduce your risk."

 

Finishing the entire six-pack. While several recent studies have suggested that consuming moderate amounts of red wine may be beneficial to the heart, excessive drinking of wine, beer or hard liquor can result in both weight gain (see next item) and increased blood pressure. And if you're a chronically heavy drinker, you're poisoning your heart and risking cardiomyopathy—an enlarged and permanently damaged heart.

 

"Alcohol's effect on the heart is not straightforward," says Stein. "But a good general rule of thumb is not to drink alcohol for heart health. If you do drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. That means no more than one ounce of hard liquor, four ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer per day."

Inflating the spare tire. Researchers have recently discovered that belly fat—in other words, a sizable spare tire—is a huge predictor of heart disease risk. In fact, at least one recent study has suggested that for every two inches you add to your gut, your risk of heart disease increases nearly 20 percent.

Now for the positive steps:

Get a risk assessment. Most Americans are dangerously unaware of how much their age, genetics and lifestyle choices affect the health of their heart. UW experts agree that assessing your risk of a heart attack or death is the single most important thing you can do.


Your doctor can help you identify the important numbers—your blood pressure and your cholesterol—and assess your risk. Or you can use a helpful online tool to do this assessment at home.


"If you're middle-aged and have more than one risk factor for heart disease —family history, hypertension, smoking or abnormal cholesterol, for instance—you also should think seriously about having a picture of your arteries taken," says Stein.

 

He has pioneered the use of ultrasound scanning to measure the amount of plaque on the walls of the carotid arteries as a means of assessing a patient's risk of heart disease.

Reduce your weight. Notice the distinct absence of the word "diet." While losing weight is the ultimate goal in terms of keeping your heart healthy, UW experts urge getting there through eating smaller portions of healthy foods, not by experimenting with the latest fad diet or forgoing food altogether.


"The question really comes down to the type and amount of food you're eating," says Dr. Matt Wolff, chief of cardiovascular medicine at UW Hospital and Clinics. "Not every diet is designed to help you have a healthy heart. Healthy diets are low in red meat, fried foods and sweets. They emphasize fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grain, fish and poultry."

Exercise. Outside of eating right, the best way to reduce your weight is getting off the couch and doing something, anything, to stimulate your heart muscle.


"The more you exercise, the better you'll do," says Stein. "Find ways to burn energy. Even walking for half an hour three times a week can have a positive effect on your heart's health."

Three up, three down. Your heart will thank you for it.

Assessing Your Risk: Heartdecision.org

Think assessing your heart-disease risk is too challenging to contemplate? Wait a second. It turns out there's an easy-to-use tool that can help you—and you can find it online at heartdecision.org.


It's the brainchild of Dr. Jon Keevil, an associate professor of medicine at UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He first developed it as a medical resident in the mid-1990s.

 

Using algorithms based on the famous Framingham Heart Study, heartdecision.org uses basic info about a patient's blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as a few facts about family history to calculate how likely an individual is to suffer a heart attack over the next ten years. Patients can work with their physician to obtain the information to plug into the tool.


"There is a large chunk of the population that is unrecognized as being at high risk for heart disease," says Keevil. "Patients may slip by a clinician's attention when they only have slightly elevated risk factors, but have many of them. Piling all these pieces together surprises some people."

 

Keevil estimates his site has had 50,000 hits in the past four years, from people across the globe. Recently, traffic has picked up as physicians and patients begin to pay more attention to preventing heart disease.

 

"The bottom line is that people need to know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, says Keevil. "And if any of these raise a flag, we need to look at their absolute risk to make best treatment recommendations."

 


Date Published: 04/30/2009

News tag(s):  michael c fiorejames h steinjon g keevilheart

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