If you are active, eat well and never take a sick day, heart disease might be the furthest thing from your mind. But heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the country, which means that you – yes you – should take a few moments to think about your heart.
People who are at risk of heart disease often don't even realize it. So, whether you're a physically fit 20-year-old or a relatively sedentary 50-year-old, do a mental risk assessment:
Do you have a family history of heart disease? Do you have high blood pressure or high blood sugar levels? What are your cholesterol levels? Do you exercise regularly and eat well? Do you smoke?
You obviously know whether you smoke and what kinds of food you eat, but do you know whether your blood pressure is high? High blood pressure is often called the "silent killer" because it very rarely produces any symptoms. High cholesterol, too, is not exactly something you can feel. If you don't know what your blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels are, it may be time for a check-up.
As kids, we saw our pediatricians at least once a year. But as adults, decades might pass without seeing a doctor. Even women who see their ob/gyn every year, don't necessarily get the cholesterol and blood pressure checks they need to stay up to date on their heart health.
You might not need a check-up every year, but if it has been a while since you've seen a doctor, it might be time to get proactive about your health. While cardiac disease is responsible for one in every four deaths in the U.S., our habits and actions can go a long way to improving our fate.
The actor James Gandolfini, who died in June of a heart attack, might have been able to change his course if he had done some risk factor management. Truly modifiable behaviors – losing weight, staying away from cigarettes, getting more exercise and managing blood pressure – can make a big difference.
Family history plays a large role, but even if you come from a long line of people with heart troubles, the steps you take to improve your health can greatly affect your risk.
One of the best things you can do is get active. The curse of middle age is feeling that you don't have enough time to exercise, but maybe we need to redefine exercise. Hitting the gym five times a week is ideal, but it could be implausible to someone juggling family and career demands. Instead, think about going for a walk with your spouse after work or walking around the block during your lunch hour.
Reducing stress can also help. As a doctor, it is difficult to tell patients what do about stress. In truth, it is a very individualized thing. So whatever it is – be it sitting quietly for five minutes every morning, meditating or journaling – do something to help nourish your soul.
Most importantly, take the time to know whether you're at risk for heart disease. If you are active, eat well and never take a sick day, you might think you're perfectly healthy.
It does not hurt to get a check-up, and understand your cardiac risk factors so that you can make any necessary modifications.
- Dr. Dipti Itchhaporia, a board-certified cardiologist, is the medical director for disease management at the Jeffrey M. Carlton Heart and Vascular Institute and is the Robert and Georgia Roth Endowed Chair for Excellence in Cardiac Care.