Heart Health Begins with Preventing Conditions That Contribute to Cardiovascular Disease

SPRINGFIELD — Seeing your primary-care provider regularly can help to prevent chronic illnesses such as heart disease.

February is American Heart Month and a good time to look at your risk factors for heart disease, which has historically been the leading cause of death in the U.S.

“When detected early, heart disease is much easier to treat. So it is important to talk with your doctor or advanced practitioner about new symptoms that you are having,” said Dr. Stephanie Silverman of Baystate Family Medicine – Northampton. “If you don’t already have a primary-care provider, this is a good time to find one.”

Your doctor or advanced practitioner can help you identify and manage your risk factors for heart disease by partnering with you to create a wellness and prevention plan.

“The good news is that you can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease by leading a healthy lifestyle,” Silverman said. “However, there are some risk factors that cannot be changed, such as increasing age, ethnic group, gender (men have a greater risk of heart attack than women), and having close family members with heart disease. People whose parents have heart disease are at greater risk for developing it themselves.”

Silverman noted that several health conditions can increase one’s risk of heart disease. About half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report, the risk of death from heart disease is higher for adults who have diabetes than those who don’t. Diabetes causes sugar to build up in the blood, which damages the inner linings of both large and small arteries.

Another serious risk factor is high blood pressure, when the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high.

Also, unhealthy blood-cholesterol levels can contribute to heart disease. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver and found in certain foods, which can build up in the walls of the arteries. It can then lead to a narrowing of those arteries and decrease the blood flow to the heart.

Obesity, or excess body fat (especially around the waist) can lead to heart disease, even if other risk factors are not present. Obesity can also contribute to the development of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease.

“All of these risk factors — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity — that can lead to heart disease can be prevented or treated with medications or lifestyle changes,” Silverman said. “Part of what we do in primary care is to work with you to help you to minimize these risks and stay as healthy as possible.”

Other major risk factors that contribute to heart disease include smoking, physical inactivity, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, and stress. Smoking, alcohol, and stress can raise blood pressure. An unhealthy diet of saturated fats and foods high in sodium and added sugars can also raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Not getting enough physical exercise can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

“Your primary-care doctor or advanced practitioner can help you to make lifestyle changes to address these behaviors and set you on a path to a healthier you by reducing your risk of heart disease,” Silverman said.