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The Doctor Is In: Start early to prevent heart disease

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Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 4:00 am

This month, make your heart health a priority. Ask yourself – no matter what your age – is there a history of heart disease, high cholesterol or high blood pressure in your family? Have any relatives died from a stroke or a heart attack? 

Your family’s history of heart disease is a major indicator of your own risk, but history doesn’t have to repeat itself. The good news is, armed with this knowledge, you can take control of your own health, maintain a healthy heart, and prevent heart disease.

Your Family History

If you have a brother or father who was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55 or a sister or mother diagnosed with heart disease prior to the age of 65, you’re considered to have an increased risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.  Having a relative die of heart complications before age 60 doubles your own risk of premature heart disease, according to a study in the Journal of American College of Cardiology. And if it’s a parent or sibling, your risk increases 72 percent. If there are two or more premature cardiovascular deaths, your risk increases two-fold further.

If a family member has or had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or atherosclerosis (a build-up of fat in the arteries), you may also be at increased risk of heart disease.

Know your Numbers

For people with a family history of cardiovascular disease, it’s important to see your doctor before symptoms arise. It’s critical for you to be aware of your own risk. The numbers to be aware of are your cholesterol level, blood pressure and waist size. High cholesterol and high blood pressure put you at risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. If you have a family history of heart disease, cholesterol testing and blood pressure checks should begin as early as your twenties, to help determine if your levels are in the normal range. Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, especially if you carry your weight in your belly. Your doctor will be able to measure and evaluate all of these health indicators for you. 

Knowing your heart-health numbers is the first step to preventing heart disease; having them checked regularly is equally important. If you have elevated numbers or other signs of heart disease, follow your doctor’s prevention and treatment recommendations to help lower your risk. This may include medications in addition to lifestyle changes, including a more heart-healthy diet, and increased aerobic exercise. According to the AHA, if test results show your cholesterol and blood pressure levels are normal, getting a check-up about every three to five years is sufficient, up to age 40. After age 40, the frequency with which your doctor recommends you be screened for disease will depend on your other risk factors.

Breaking the Family Pattern

Your heart disease risk is mostly in your hands – regardless of family history – and several lifestyle changes should be maintained for a healthy heart:

Don’t smoke, and limit alcohol to a moderate amount (no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink for women).

Eat lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and limit trans and saturated fats, salt, and sugar.

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