February is a good time to think about your heart health and your family’s heart health as we celebrate Heart Health Month.
Young adults might think of themselves as infallible and heart disease as only for the old. Not true. Now is the time to think about heart health and decrease your chances of having heart disease later in life.
A 2018 study by the American Heart Association shows acute myocardial infarctions, or AMI, are increasing in young men and women. Researchers studied more than 28,000 people (ages 35 to 74) who were hospitalized for heart attacks from 1995 to 2014. Of these patients, 8,737 (30 percent) were young (ages 35 to 54) with AMI. The rate of heart attacks in patients increased from 27 percent to 32 percent, with the largest increase in young women. Also, individuals with a history of hypertension (high blood pressure) increased from 59 percent to 73 percent and diabetes mellitus also increased from 25 percent to 35 percent among young AMI patients.
This is an indication of a crisis point, not a starting point. Many risk factors can be controlled early in life, lowering the risk of heart disease later in life. Prevention is the best way to avoid a heart problem at any age.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is still the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Heart health is for all ages, not just older individuals.
Here are tips adapted from the American Heart Association to help prevent heart disease at any age.
In Your 20s
Developing healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight in your twenties is the first step towards heart health. What you eat either contributes to or prevents developing high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, coronary disease, and Type 2 diabetes—all major risk factors for heart disease. Fill your plate with fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Try to avoid saturated fats, excess salt, and sugary snacks when you can. Walnuts, fish, and other Omega-3-rich foods may help lower your cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and prevent blood clots. A Mediterranean-style diet with careful portion sizes can also lower your risk of heart disease.
Be physically active. It is a lot easier to be active and stay active if you start at an early age. Keep your workout routine interesting by mixing it up and trying new activities. Adults should engage in at least 150 minutes per week of accumulated moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity. Additionally, two or more days a week should include muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest shoulders, and arms).
Do not smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. If you picked up the habit of using tobacco or tobacco products as a teen, now is the time to quit. Even exposure to secondhand smoke poses a serious health hazard. Many resources to help with quitting tobacco are found at: https://www.ycq2.org/
Stay on track with regular wellness exams and talk to your health care provider about your diet, lifestyle, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, blood sugar, and body mass index. Book an appointment at the Army Wellness Center to help with your wellness, physical fitness, healthy nutrition, stress management, or tobacco-free living goals. The Army Wellness Center can help with health goals at all stages of life for active-duty servicemembers, adult family members, retirees, and Department of the Army civilians by leveraging state-of-the-art techniques and equipment.
In Your 30s
Balancing the many demands required by career and family can sometimes leave little time for yourself. Protecting time to stay on a regular exercise routine is important. It is also important to create healthy habits for your entire family with family activities such as cooking healthy meals. Teaching kids how to prepare healthy meals is a skill that will last a lifetime. It is also time to talk to your parents and siblings about family history of heart disease or high blood pressure.
Managing stress is also important. A 2017 journal article published in Nature Reviews Cardiology found too much stress can be a disease trigger in individuals who already have a high atherosclerotic plaque build-up. Long-term stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls. Try to learn new strategies to deal with stress such as: meditation, volunteering, exercise, deep breathing, new hobbies, and talking to friends. Military OneSource provides tips for recognizing and dealing with the symptoms of stress. While Military OneSource does not provide healthcare services, it does offer non-medical counseling and information about your benefits.
Keep up with annual health exams with your primary care provider. Stay on top of your numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and fasting glucose.
In Your 40s
Even with a busy lifestyle, finding tricks to stay on track can help with heart disease, such as watching your weight and not gaining extra pounds. Gaining a few pounds each year can add up over the next 20 years. However, you can avoid weight gain by following a heart-healthy diet and staying on track with your exercise. You can also book an appointment with a registered dietitian to help personalize a weight loss plan. If you need motivation to stick with your workouts, ask a friend to help keep you on track, or try a new workout routine.
Sleep is also an important part of heart health. The 2020 Health of the Force report found 14 percent of active-duty Soldiers report sleep apnea, insomnia, and other sleep disorders. According to the Sleep Foundation, in the United States, sleep apnea affects 2–9 percent of the population. Over the age of 40, sleep apnea occurs more frequently in men than in women.
If you have ever awakened yourself with a sudden snore — or if your partner nudges you awake to turn over — it’s possible you could be affected by sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and heart failure. Talk to your medical team for treatment recommendations.
Some of the routine screening evaluations recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force begin in a person’s forties.[vi] This is why annual health exams, even for people who feel healthy, are very important at this age. Stay up to date with medical appointments and recommended screenings, including blood pressure checks, heart-health screenings, and a fasting blood-glucose test.
In Your 50s
Now is the time to take extra steps to prevent heart disease with a healthy diet and exercise. It is easy to slip into unhealthy eating habits. Reset your eating habits by filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, focusing on whole fruits, varying your veggies, and adding fish to your diet at least twice per week. Choose foods and beverages with less added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Smaller portion sizes can help with calorie control. Try new recipes to expand your routine with more fish or plant-based entrees.
Refresh your CPR skills or take a CPR class. Also, learn the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Now is the time to get savvy about symptoms. Call 9-1-1 if you notice symptoms of a heart attack.
According to the CDC, the major symptoms of a heart attack are:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. The pain does not change significantly as an individual breathes, changes body position, or touches the area.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint. You may also break out into a cold sweat.
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders.
- Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath also can happen before chest discomfort.
In Your 60s+
Your sixties are a big decade. You may be planning to put your work life behind you, travel the world, see the grandkids, or start new hobbies. Even the changes you make now can significantly improve your health and help you to live into your eighties and nineties.
Stay on top of your blood pressure numbers:
- Normal blood pressure for most adults is defined as a systolic pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic pressure of less than 80.
- Elevated blood pressure is defined as a systolic pressure between 120 and 129 with a diastolic pressure of less than 80.
- High blood pressure is defined as 130 or higher for the first number, or 80 or higher for the second number.
Visit your primary care provider regularly to have your blood pressure checked and, if needed, plan how to manage your high blood pressure. As you age, high blood pressure and other factors increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Plaque builds up inside the walls of your arteries. Over time, the plaque hardens and narrows your arteries, which decreases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body. Watching your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers closely and managing any health problems can help you live longer.
One way to keep your blood pressure under control is to follow the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet. The goal is to keep sodium intake to 2,300 mg or less per day to reduce blood pressure. In addition to the low-sodium version of DASH, another modification includes swapping 10 percent of daily carbohydrates for protein or unsaturated fats. For DASH eating, no foods are off limits. Meals revolve around foods naturally rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein, and low in sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats. Additional resources integrate heart-healthy tips for fitting in exercise, maintaining a healthful body weight, and limiting or avoiding alcohol.
As we age, it is important to know the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Heart attack symptoms in women can be different from men. Knowing when you are having a heart attack or stroke means you are more likely to get immediate help. Quick treatment can save your life. Heart health is important throughout all the years.
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.