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Heart health starts young – 4 practices to implement today

Two women walking in a park with weights

As COVID-19 continues to proliferate, you might feel like we’ve been weathering this pandemic for a long time. But Tryon Medical Partners cardiologist Dr. Sanjay C. Patel would argue we’ve been enduring another pandemic, one predating COVID-19. 

The pandemic Dr. Patel refers to is the No. 1 killer of Americans annually – heart disease. 

The prevention of heart disease starts now with healthy lifestyle choices and conversations with your physician that can pay off years down the road. Dr. Patel calls these efforts “preventative cardiology” as patients reduce their risk through efforts that diminish high blood pressure and control cholesterol.

“How aggressively your risk for heart disease builds is determined by exercise, diet and genetics,” Dr. Patel says. “These risks compound over time.”

The compounding nature of these factors is why Dr. Patel has shared heart-healthy practices with children as young as middle school. Though younger adults believe any bad habits in their early years can be mitigated by a healthier lifestyle later in life, this is not the case with our cardiovascular systems. The good news is, starting these habits anytime pays dividends in the future.

Ready to adopt these practices in your own life? Dr. Patel shares four key components to prevent your risk of heart disease.

1. Know your baseline numbers

Understanding your base numbers can help you and your primary care physician monitor for any future changes to be concerned about. For cardiovascular health, your doctor will primarily look at two main factors:

  • Your blood pressure, which indicates how much pressure your blood exerts against your artery walls.
  • Your cholesterol, which results in plaque build-up or fatty deposits in the arteries that can contribute to deadly blockages over time.

The earlier you begin monitoring and treating these numbers, the more you can prevent or slow down the process or hardening of the arteries called atherosclerosis over time.

“From an early age plaque is noted within arteries, including the arteries of the heart,” says Dr. Patel. “It begins early in life and only increases over the course of years by narrowing arteries.”

2. Establish your family history

Lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease starts with education, a strong patient-doctor relationship and regular follow ups with your primary care provider, who can refer you to a cardiologist if needed. Sharing a thorough family history with your doctor is a key step in this education process.

“Family history carries a lot of weight,” Dr. Patel says. “Heart disease or heart failure in the family carries through genetically.”

If you don’t know your family history, it’s worth making a few phone calls before your next appointment. Start with immediate family including grandparents, parents and siblings. Ask if they’ve had heart disease or stroke and at what age.

3. Strive for a balanced, healthy diet

Dr. Patel says to think of your diet as what you eat rather than something you’re on. When “going on a diet,” people often make momentary changes in what they eat to get the results they want. However, unsustained, those changes have no long-term effect. Instead, make healthy lifestyle modifications that you can continue for the long haul

“Create habits you can maintain,” Dr. Patel says. “Eat what you enjoy but eat more of the healthier things to balance it out.”

There are many benefits to a vegan diet, but if you desire meat then broiled or baked white meat or dark fish are the best options. If you eat red meat consider a four-ounce steak rather than twelve ounces. Get the crunch of your favorite fried foods but broil them instead. Stock your cabinets with heart-healthy options, eliminate unhealthy fats, cut back on salt and strongly consider a plant-based diet daily.

4. Develop an exercise routine you enjoy

What’s the most popular sport in America? Dr. Patel jokes that it’s sitting on the couch, watching sports. We should be playing them ourselves, he says.

Having a sense of “play” is a key component to any successful exercise program because it’s all about what you’ll enjoy and continue rather than pushing yourself too hard, resulting in burnout or injury.

“If you walk 30 minutes briskly every day, you can cut your risk of heart attack and stroke in half,” Dr. Patel says. “Quality exercise doesn’t have to be difficult. There’s a bell curve of what is successful. Find your happy medium. The best form of exercise is the one you’ll keep up.”

Often when patients get to the point of needing to see a cardiologist they come in feeling scared and unsure, Dr. Patel says. After sitting down for a discussion and helping them understand these simple steps they can take to reduce their risk factors, they leave feeling much more confident and content.

“When it comes to heart health, people often forget the basics,” says Dr. Patel, who believes in a “patient first” philosophy. “But through education, healthy habits and taking the time to have those conversations with your doctor, we can move the needle.”