Begin Your Journey to a Healthier Heart

February 22, 2014

emblem health in harlemBy William Gillespie, M.D.

The heart is one of the most important organs, responsible for nearly everything that gives the body life, including the transportation of oxygen and the strength of the immune system.

Despite its importance, the heart is often ignored and heart disease is a major epidemic in the United States. Each year, more than 700,000 Americans suffer a heart attack and there are about 600,000 deaths from heart disease.

Are you at greater risk for heart disease? There are two categories of risk factors – those that CAN’T be changed and those we CAN control.

Risk factors that CAN’T be changed include:

  • Gender – Men have a greater risk for heart attacks
  • Age – More than 80 percent of people who die of heart disease are 65 or older
  • Race – African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Hawaiians and some Asian Americans have a higher risk of heart disease
  • Family history of heart disease

Risk factors that CAN be modified through lifestyle changes or treated with medication include:

  • Obesity
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking cigarettes

If you have a family history of heart disease or stroke, you may already be under a physician’s care for prescription medications or other treatments. But even if you are not seeing a doctor, the good news is there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease.

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The following is a check-list of healthy lifestyle changes you can make starting today:

¨ Eat Healthy and Get Plenty of Exercise.

If you have made resolutions this year to eat healthier and lose weight, you may be well on your way to a healthier heart.

Small changes in diet and exercise routine can make a big difference in reducing your risk of heart disease.

A healthy diet includes eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoiding foods that are high in sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. To cut back on sodium, use spices to season your food instead of salt.

Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Adults should engage in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise three to four times a week.

¨ Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can damage your arteries and potentially lead to coronary artery disease and heart failure. Since high blood pressure has no symptoms, your blood pressure should be monitored on a regular basis. You can do this at home, at a pharmacy or at your doctor’s office.

If there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it could build up on the walls of your arteries, causing a form of heart disease as the arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked. You should have your cholesterol checked every five years – it can be done with a simple blood test at your doctor’s office.

¨ Take Your Medication.

If you are being treated for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, remember to take your medication. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.

¨ Quit Smoking.

Cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, keep it that way. If you do smoke, there are many tools available to help you quit. The New York State Smokers’ Quitline offers extensive support at 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487) or by visiting

William Gillespie, M.D., is chief medical officer of EmblemHealth and President and CEO of AdvantageCare Physicians.

Cigarette smoking
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