We quite often hear that we should all be making our heart health a priority. I don’t think anyone would object to this notion, as keeping our hearts beating is what keeps us alive. But what exactly is heart health, and how does it relate to stroke prevention?
Heart health is taking the proper lifestyle (and sometimes medical) steps to avoid coronary heart/artery disease and high blood pressure (hypertension). These two prevalent conditions are the underlying causes of several other heart-related conditions.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the common term for the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries that could lead to a heart attack. Plaque is made of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material found in the blood). The buildup of plaque may partially or totally block the blood’s flow through an artery in the heart, brain, or other part of the body. If a piece of plaque breaks off, or a blood clot forms on the plaque’s surface, an artery could be blocked, causing a heart attack or a stroke.
Many scientists believe that plaque begins to form when the inner lining of an artery becomes damaged. Possible causes of damage to the arterial wall include elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, from high blood pressure, and from smoking cigarettes – which greatly aggravates the arteries. As the artery narrows, blood flow is reduced, which decreases the body’s – and the heart’s - oxygen supply.
Additional risk factors for coronary artery disease are high LDL (bad) cholesterol, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure, family history, diabetes, smoking, and obesity. Getting older is a factor, too, due to the increasing stiffness of large arteries and therefore higher blood pressure as a person ages.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when your blood pressure is consistently too high. Blood pressure is a measure of the force of the blood flowing through your blood vessels.
A healthy blood pressure for an adult is when the systolic number is less than 120 and the diastolic number is less than 80. Any combination of numbers above those may indicate prehypertension or a greater risk.
The AHA explains that your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers: systolic (upper number; read first) which indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats, and the diastolic (bottom number; read second) which indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
Typically, more attention is given to the systolic blood pressure number as a risk factor for heart disease for people over age 50. High blood pressure is often present without any obvious symptoms, too. The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have it checked by a medical professional.
Every part of your body, including your heart and your brain, needs oxygen to work. Oxygen is carried in the blood. Blood vessels called arteries carry oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Both heart attack and stroke are due to problems in the arteries. The same factors that cause heart disease can make you more likely to have a stroke.
Both heart attack and stroke are medical emergencies that can lead to serious health problems. They can even be fatal.
Making changes that make your arteries healthier will help lower your risk for both heart attack and stroke. If you have heart disease, you may need to work on a few aspects of your lifestyle. But remember that the things that are good for your arteries, heart, and brain are also good for the rest of your body.
Your health care provider will work with you to modify lifestyle factors as needed to help prevent progression of cardiovascular disease. This can lead to heart attack or stroke. Here are some tips for living a heart healthy life:
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, an observance that highlights the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke and encourages persons to act FAST (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, Time to call 9–1–1) if someone is having a stroke.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. This equates to someone having a stroke every 40 seconds; every four minutes, someone dies of a stroke. Stroke is also a cause of disability, reducing mobility in more than half of stroke survivors age 65 and over.
The good news is, living a healthy lifestyle can be the largest contributor to avoiding coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. And a stroke is preventable and largely treatable. A lifestyle that incorporates good nutrition, weight management, and getting plenty of physical activity are the best things you can do.