If you're among the millions of Americans who have multiple risk factors for heart disease, the best way to protect yourself is to make lifestyle changes that eliminate or reduce your risk.
But as we all know, change isn't easy — especially when you're talking about changing long-standing behaviors, such as smoking, eating unhealthy foods or being a couch potato.
1. Partner with health care professionals.
Liebson stresses the importance of a team approach to support heart disease prevention goals. "In heart disease prevention, a nurse, nutritionist and behaviorist are essential for supporting patients and helping them reach their goals," he says.
The team can assess the patient's current health habits and see if there are any roadblocks, such as concerns or fears, related to changing any unhealthy habits.
Once those roadblocks have been identified and addressed, patients should work with their health care team to prioritize the changes that they want to accomplish, whether it's quitting smoking, starting an exercise program, reducing stress or adopting a healthier diet.
2. Put your goals in writing
"When you've determined what the first and most important lifestyle change is that needs to be made to lower your risk, you then create a contract with your doctor or care team," says Liebson.
"For example, the patient might say, 'The next time we see each other, I'll be ready to set a quit date for when I'll stop smoking.' Or they might pledge to sign up for a weight-loss program by the next meeting. You can't imagine how helpful it is to set these goals."
Create a new contract for each subsequent goal, with realistic timeframes for accomplishing each change, and keep track of your progress by writing down each milestone in a journal.
3. Know your numbers.
Stay on top of your heart health by getting the following routine screenings:
- Get your blood pressure checked once a year, and consult with your doctor if the top reading is consistently above 120 or the bottom is consistently higher than 80 (normal blood pressure is around 120/80 mm Hg). If your blood pressure is consistently 140/90 mm Hg or higher, you should already be partnering with your doctor to lower it, so make sure you make an appointment as soon as possible.
- Check your glucose (blood sugar levels) every two to three years, depending on any changes in weight or lifestyle. If your fasting blood sugar is in the range of 100 to 125, you’re already considered pre-diabetic; talk to your doctor about making lifestyle changes. If your fasting blood sugar levels are greater than 125, it is in the range of diabetes and you’ll need to visit your doctor and see what treatment and recommendations there are for controlling your blood sugar.
- Get your cholesterol checked at least once every five years, if levels have been normal in the past (below 200) and you haven’t had any significant weight gain. It's not just your overall cholesterol numbers that matter; you need to also look at your HDL, LDL and triglyceride levels. For example, if you have good overall cholesterol, but low HDL levels (the so-called good cholesterol), you may still be at risk and need to make changes or seek treatment. If HDL is less than 30, you need to add more physical activity and exercise to your daily routine.
Having the support of your doctor and the other health care professionals on the team is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that you stay on track and reach your goals.
4. Get extra help if you need it.
See your doctor more frequently if any of the following is true:
- You have already been diagnosed with heart disease
- You have experienced a stroke
- You have a family history of heart disease
- You used to smoke, or continue to smoke or use other tobacco products regularly
- You have been diagnosed with diabetes
- You are obese (a BMI over 30) or significantly overweight (a BMI over 28)
- You have kidney disease
- You have peripheral vascular disease (PVD), or trouble with arteries in the legs
- You recently gained a significant amount of weight
The sooner you commit to lowering your risk, the better, says Liebson. So talk to your doctor at your next appointment, or schedule an appointment soon, to get you started on the path to better heart health.
"Having the support of your doctor and the other health care professionals on the team is one of the most important things you can do to ensure that you stay on track and reach your goals," Liebson says.