Reducing risk for heart disease could save your life

Heart disease doesn’t discriminate, affecting men and women regardless of their age or where they live. In the United States, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death, according to the American Heart Association. North of the border, one Canadian dies from heart disease or stroke every seven minutes. So says the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, a charity that annually spends millions of dollars researching heart disease and promoting healthier lifestyles.

For most men and women, the prevalence of heart disease is no great surprise. Nearly every adult can point to a loved one who has dealt with heart disease. Many men and women can even point to a friend or family member who lost their battle with heart disease. That familiarity should make people even more willing to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle, something the AHA admits is the best defense against heart disease and stroke. Though not all risk factors for heart disease can be controlled, there are ways to reduce that risk considerably.

Control your blood pressure
High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke and a major risk for heart disease. Blood pressure measures the pressure or force of blood against the walls if your blood vessels, also known as arteries. Having your blood pressure taken is a routine on most doctor visits, but many people are unaware what the number actually measures. The top number measures the pressure when the heart contracts and pushes blood out, while the bottom number is the lowest pressure when the heart relaxes and beats. Blood pressure that is consistently above 140/90 is considered high. A normal blood pressure is one between 120/80 and 129/84.

Because of the relation between blood pressure and heart disease and stroke, men and women must take steps to control their blood pressure. Having your blood pressure checked regularly is a good start. Once you get checked, reduce the amount of sodium in your diet, replacing high-sodium snacks with healthier fare and monitoring sodium intake during the day. The Heart & Stroke Foundation recommends eating less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and that includes salt added when making meals or eating at the table.

Maintaining a healthy body weight and successfully managing stress are additional ways to control blood pressure.

Limit alcohol consumption
The AHA notes that excessive consumption of alcohol can contribute to high triglycerides, produce irregular heartbeats and eventually lead to heart failure or stroke. There is some evidence that people who drink moderately have a lower risk of heart disease than nondrinkers. But it’s also important to note that people who drink moderately also have a lower risk of heart disease than people who drink excessively. So when it comes to alcohol, moderation reigns supreme. One or two standard drinks per day is enough depending on gender. The Heart & Stroke Foundation suggests that women who drink should not drink more than nine drinks a week, while men should not exceed 14 drinks in a single week.

Of course, if there are extenuating circumstances then all bets are off. Men and women with liver disease, mental illness or a personal or family history of alcohol problems should avoid alcohol entirely. In addition, those taking certain medications should avoid alcohol consumption as well. For the latter group, discuss alcohol consumption with your physician when he or she writes you a prescription.

Quit smoking
The decision to smoke tobacco is the decision to invite a host of potential physical ailments, not the least of which is heart disease. Smoking contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increases the risk of blood clots, reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood and increases blood pressure. As if that’s not enough, smoking also harms those around you. According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke is responsible for 3,400 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers in the United States each year. In Canada, nearly 8,000 nonsmokers lose their lives each year from exposure to secondhand smoke.

What might surprise some people, however, is how quickly quitting smoking can reduce a person’s risk for heart disease. According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, within 48 hours of quitting a person’s chances of having heart disease have already started to go down. For those who successfully avoid smoking for one year, the risk of a suffering a smoking-related heart attack has been cut in half. After 15 years, the risk of heart attack is the same as someone who never smoked at all.

Embrace physical activity
People who are physically inactive are twice as likely to be at risk for heart disease or stroke than people who are physically active. The AHA notes that research has shown that getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity on five or more days of the week can help lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol while helping to maintain a healthy weight. If starting from scratch, even light physical activity can provide some health benefits. Gradually work your way up to more demanding activities, and make physical activity a routine part of your daily life.

More information on heart disease and stroke is available online at and