Happy 100 to the American Heart Association: Consider a 3-Month Challenge to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease Today

Heart Disease Prevention

February is American Heart Month, and 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the American Heart Association.  For those interested in the history of medicine, it’s worth taking a look at this article commemorating the work that has been done by the American Heart Association over the last century.  Since June 10, 1924, when Dr. Paul Dudley White, one of the pre-eminent cardiologists of the 20th century, along with five other doctors, signed the papers that formally created the American Heart Association, this organization has shined a powerful light on heart disease, its treatment and its prevention.  An excerpt from the article:

Of all the ways to measure progress from 1924 to 2024, the best is probably the death rate from cardiovascular diseases. It’s been cut basically in half. That kind of improvement is staggering. We’re talking about several million lives saved and improved every year. That’s the direct gain. Now widen the circle by including the other people whose lives are enhanced by having those folks around: their children, parents and grandparents; their friends, neighbors and colleagues.

Powerful stuff.  As one of Peter Attia’s (author of Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity) “four horsemen” of chronic disease that account for over 80% of deaths in people over 50, understanding the risk factors for heart disease and how to decrease them can have a meaningful impact on how long you live and how well you live.  And starting early – as in, now (no matter what decade of life you’re in) – is important to move the marker on the “how well you live” part: pushing your active, vibrant lifespan (your “healthspan”) to the outer edge of your total lifespan. 

With the work done by the American Heart Association and others, the risk factors for heart disease are now probably pretty familiar to most.  Hypertension, high cholesterol (in particular high levels of LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, and associated ApoB particles), smoking, obesity and overweight, diabetes, physical inactivity, poor sleep, chronic stress and excessive alcohol consumption (which can raise blood pressure, increase triglyceride levels, contribute to obesity and lead to heart muscle damage).

It can be much harder to formulate the plan around choosing the risk factor modification that is best for you and to implement the lifestyle changes that are often needed to modify these risk factors.  Here are a few examples to get you started thinking about what area or areas you would like to focus on first.  Whether it’s adopting a heart-healthy diet, staying physically active, quitting smoking, managing stress, or prioritizing sleep, every small step toward heart disease prevention makes a meaningful difference in long-term health and well-being. 

I encourage you to pick just one risk factor to modify over the next 3 months.  Give your trusted Village Doctor a call to discuss your plan, and what ways we might evaluate progress over that period, so that you can celebrate your achievement and see the impact on your “healthspan.”  

Follow a Heart-Healthy Diet: Emphasize a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish like salmon and trout. Limit intake of saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars.

Exercise Regularly: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (“zone 2” work-out activity) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, combined with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week. Choose activities you enjoy, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or dancing, and make physical activity a regular part of your routine.

Quit Smoking: Seek support and resources to quit smoking, whether through counseling, nicotine replacement therapy, prescription medications, or support groups. Quitting smoking is one of the most significant steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your overall health.

Manage Stress: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi, progressive muscle relaxation, or spending time in nature. Engage in hobbies, activities, and social connections that bring you joy and relaxation.  Consider an evidence-based Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, such as these UCSF online courses.

Limit Alcohol Consumption: If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Be mindful of portion sizes and avoid binge drinking, which can have detrimental effects on your heart health.

Prioritize Sleep: Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night by establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and optimizing your sleep environment. Seek treatment for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea if necessary.

Manage Chronic Conditions: If you have conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or sleep apnea, work closely with your Village Doctor to manage them effectively through medication, lifestyle modifications, and regular monitoring.

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Jennifer Abrams, MD, February, 2024

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