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Your Top 5 Questions About Heart Health, Answered!

Heart health

The human heart is astonishingly tireless. Over an average lifetime, it will beat 2.5 billion times and pump out millions of gallons of blood. With such an impressive output, it’s amazing it doesn’t malfunction more often. However, as exceptionally reliable as our hearts may be, they’re still susceptible to wear and tear. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, although the CDC estimates that it’s 80% preventable. 

Our hearts work so hard for us. Is there a way we can return that effort and hopefully keep them beating for a long time to come? We answer this question and more as we explore your top heart health FAQs.

What is the link between cholesterol and heart health?

Cholesterol gets a bad rep, but it isn’t inherently bad. Our bodies need it to build cells. We produce enough cholesterol on our own, but we also take it in when we eat animal products like meat and dairy. Additionally, foods that are high in saturated and trans fats can stimulate our bodies to make more cholesterol than we need. 

When there’s too much cholesterol in our blood it can build up in our artery walls, limiting or even blocking the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Even worse, if a chunk breaks off and blocks an artery that leads to the heart or brain, a heart attack or stroke may occur. 

The American Heart Association recommends having your cholesterol levels tested every 4 to 6 years unless your doctor determines that you should check more frequently. High cholesterol can be addressed through diet and lifestyle changes or your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug, such as a statin. 

Is salt really bad for me?

We need the sodium in salt to live. But, as is often the case, we can have too much of a good thing. Excess sodium causes the body to hold on to more fluid. More water in the bloodstream increases the volume of blood, which in turn increases blood pressure. High blood pressure can put a strain on our heart and is a major risk factor of heart disease, so make sure your doctor checks yours regularly.

Most Americans consume far more sodium than they need. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt. Some of the biggest hidden-sodium culprits are processed meats, canned foods, frozen dinners, and prepared sauces and condiments. If you’re seeking convenience, look for an option that’s labeled “low sodium.” 

How do I make heart-healthy food choices?

Beyond reducing sodium, The American Heart Association recommends including plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains at every meal. A high-fiber diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Limiting saturated and trans fats will have the biggest impact on lowering your cholesterol. Try to choose skinless poultry, fish, and legumes over red meat and stick to low-fat dairy when you can. You’ll also want to favor nontropical vegetable oils like olive, corn, or canola over saturated oils like coconut or palm and avoid hydrogenated margarine and shortening. There are plenty of ways to substitute ingredients in your favorite meals to make them better for your heart.

Finally, while there are many vitamins and supplements out there claiming to promote heart health, studies on some, such as calcium and vitamin E, have been conflicting. After completing a review of the relevant research, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins cautioned against relying on supplements. Physician Edgar R. Miller III, M.D., Ph.D., summed up their findings by saying, “The bottom line is, we don’t recommend supplements to treat or to prevent cardiovascular disease.” One possible exception is omega-3 fatty acids, however Miller recommends dietary sources such as fish or walnuts. 

What lifestyle choices will help keep my heart healthy?

We’ve already discussed the importance of monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as reducing sodium intake and choosing heart-healthy foods. Here are three more ways to give your heart a boost. 

  • Quit smoking: According to the CDC, smoking is a major cause of heart disease, accounting for about a quarter of all related deaths in the United States. It’s not easy, but you can give up cigarettes for good—the American Heart Association provides some helpful tips. 
  • Don’t forget your cardio: Activities like walking, running, swimming, and biking will help to condition your heart and lungs. Try to get your heart rate up by exercising at a moderate intensity for at least 2-3 hours per week. How do you know if you’ve hit the sweet spot in terms of intensity? Well, the CDC explains that the “talk test” can help. You’ll know you’ve reached moderate intensity if you can comfortably talk but not sing. 
  • Manage stress: Research suggests that high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure—all common risk factors for heart disease. Plus, some of the unhealthy ways we deal with stress, like smoking and comfort foods, are contributors as well. For a more positive outlet, The American Heart Association suggests these stress-busting activities. 

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

Though we’re used to seeing dramatic depictions in the movies, not all heart attacks occur with sudden intensity. Many come on gradually with only mild discomfort, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. 

According to the American Heart Association, chest discomfort—whether tightness, pressure, squeezing, or pain—is a major symptom to watch out for. The sensation may even radiate across your arm, back, neck, or jaw. Another major warning sign is shortness of breath, which can occur with or without chest discomfort. Additional symptoms of a heart attack include sweating, nausea, vomiting, or lightheadedness. 

If you experience these symptoms or any unusual sensations in your chest, call 911 right away. Getting immediate medical care could save your life. Every minute matters, so even if you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to get help. 

Keep asking questions 

Staying curious about the many facets of heart health could help you live a longer, healthier life. Your heart needs your help maintaining its steady, life-giving pulse. Ask your doctor how you can reduce your risk of heart disease and make sure to get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly. At Alto, we’re specialists in cardiac medications, so if you need a prescription to take care of your heart, we’ll be here to take care of you. 

Switch to Alto and you’ll always have a team of experts on your side. We’re available from 9 am - 9 pm PT Monday - Friday and 10 am - 6 pm PT on weekends; reach out via phone, text, or the app.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.