heart month

A man works out on a treadmill as part of his exercise routine for heart health.

February is designated as American Heart Month to bring awareness to the prevalence and severity of cardiovascular disease in the United States. Nearly a quarter of deaths in the United States are caused by heart disease. Though this is a staggering statistic, the good news is that heart disease is often preventable.

There are key factors that impact heart health that everyone needs to be aware of to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, occurs when the pressure of blood flowing through your blood vessels is consistently too high. According to the American Heart Association, nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure and many do not even know it.

Dr. Blase A. Carabello, chief of cardiology at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Medical Center, said high blood pressure is “often a symptomless silent killer because there are often no noticeable symptoms that accompany this condition. The best way to know if your blood pressure is in a healthy range is to get your blood pressure checked and monitor your blood pressure numbers regularly.”

Carabello also stressed that knowing your numbers is important because it can help you know when to seek care. Earlier and better treatment of high blood pressure has played a key role in decreasing death rates as it relates to heart disease.

Changes in lifestyle that make an impact on blood pressure include eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, whole-grains, skinless poultry and fish, and low in salt, saturated and trans fats, red meat and sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Other changes that make a difference include limiting alcohol, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking. Also, if your health care provider recommends medication as part of treatment with lifestyle changes, make sure you take as prescribed.

Cholesterol levels can play a key role in heart health. Cholesterol is the waxy substance the body needs to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. It comes from two sources: the liver, which makes all the cholesterol you need, and the rest comes from foods from animals. Cholesterol circulates in the blood and as the amount of it increases in your blood, so too does the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. When it comes to cholesterol, remember to check, change and control.

“Check your cholesterol levels to know your numbers and assess your risk,” Carabello said. “Change your diet and lifestyle, eat more fruits and vegetables and increase physical activity. Then, control your cholesterol with help from your doctor if needed.”

Another key factor influencing heart health is atrial fibrillation often called “afib,” a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure and a shortened life span. Typically, people who have one or more conditions including high blood pressure, sleep apnea, underlying heart disease, and other chronic conditions including thyroid problems, diabetes and asthma may be at risk for atrial fibrillation. However, the single most important modifiable risk factor for afib is obesity.

The treatment goals of atrial fibrillation begin with diagnosis through in-depth examination from a physician. Based upon the diagnosis, providers may offer a variety of options including medication that usually entails the use of blood thinners, nonsurgical procedures, including electrical cardioversion to reset the heart to a normal rhythm and procedures that can block the area of the heart where blood clots form if patients are unable to take blood thinners.

If heart surgery is needed, today’s advancement in surgical treatments have resulted in less invasive procedures and much faster recovery time than even 10 years ago.

“Being proactive about your heart health is the best way to be aware of potential problems,” Carabello said. “Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active can make a positive impact on blood pressure, cholesterol and atrial fibrillation, which will help maintain good heart health. Also, seeing your provider for screenings and check-ups is key to preventing problems before they arise.”

Even though the pandemic continues to make an impact on daily life in eastern North Carolina, Carabello encourages community members to continue to seek medical attention and to be knowledgeable about the procedures in place to make patients as safe as possible.

“Heart disease did not take a break during the pandemic and any negative heart condition needs to be addressed in its earliest stages when the widest variety of treatments are available,” he said.

For more information about cardiovascular resources at Vidant Health, including treatments, screenings and technologies, visit www.vidanthealth.com and the heart & vascular care section of the website.

Highlighting Your Health is an educational segment courtesy of Vidant Health News that appears in The Daily Reflector. Vidant is a mission-driven, 1,708-bed health system that annually serves a region of more than 1.4 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties.