It’s February, and that means it’s American Heart Month. At the same time, it’s also Black History Month. Ironically, with heart disease being the #1 killer in the United States, the risk is even higher for Black Americans.

So, it seems to be that no matter what your background is…especially here in the “US of A”, heart disease is truly a serious matter.

We hear far too frequently about celebrities leaving us in an untimely death from cardiac arrest.

For example, Michael Jackson and Brittany Murphy pictured below…

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating. Causes include electrical disturbances in heart rhythm, heart attacks and other heart-related conditions.

The most tragic part of the story for many, is that their friends and family will state they did not have any known underlying health problems.

Heart attacks often do come by surprise, and it is devastating when someone you know and love is affected by such a potentially fatal illness.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the US, according to the CDC.  About one in 10 heart disease deaths occurs in people under the age of 55. And, about every 34 seconds, someone in the US has a “myocardial infarction” (a.k.a. heart attack).

So, how does it happen?

Why do some people find themselves battling or surprised by heart disease, and others do not?

There are a number of factors than can increase your risk of heart disease. Some of these risk factors include obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, physical INACTIVITY, excessive alcohol use, and a family history of heart disease.

You may know someone who takes a baby aspirin every day to help prevent them from getting a heart attack in the future. This is usually prescribed by their primary care doctor or cardiologist.

So, a doctor can calculate these risks using the right “numbers”, and now you can too! If you are 20 years of age or older, and do not already have heart disease, you can visit the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Heart Attack Risk Calculator. Here, you can find your estimated risk of having a heart attack of dying from heart disease in the next 10 years.

I do not recommend picking up a prescription for Aspirin without discussing this with your doctor first. Like any medicine, Aspirin, too can have side effects. The most worrisome of these include bleeding in your GI Tract. So, your doctor can go over with you the benefit of taking an aspirin, vs the potential risks.

Aside from taking an Aspirin every day, there are very effective ways to decrease your risk of heart disease. Many of these include knowing and improving your numbers:

Number 1 – Your Cholesterol

When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the walls of your arteries, which is called “atherosclerosis” (hardening of the arteries), a form of heart disease. The arteries become narrowed and blood flow to the heart muscle is slowed down or blocked. The blood carries oxygen to the heart, and if enough blood and oxygen cannot reach your heart, you may suffer chest pain (a.k.a. “angina”). If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by a blockage, the result is a heart attack.

There are two forms of cholesterol that we’re most familiar with: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol.) These are the form in which cholesterol travels in the blood.

LDL is the main source of artery-clogging plaque. This is why it is called the “bad cholesterol”This number should be <130 for most people, and <100 for some people with more risk factors.

HDL actually works to clear cholesterol from the blood. That is why it is labeled the “good cholesterol”In women, this number should be 50 or higher. In men, this number should be 40 or higher.

Triglycerides are another fat in our bloodstream. Research is now showing that high levels of triglycerides may also be linked to  heart disease. This number should be less than 150.

If you don’t know your cholesterol numbers, please consider getting it checked in blood work. There are great medicines to help control this. Also, if you would like to lower your cholesterol by working on the foods you eat, read these recommendations by the American Heart Association.

Number 2 – Your Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is a measure of the force (or pressure) that blood moves through your body. When your blood pressure is to high (a.k.a. “Hypertension“), it can cause tiny tears in the blood vessels of your body. These tears can cause “nooks and crannies” that will allow cholesterol plaques to build up, and eventually block off blood flow to the heart, or even to your brain. As a result, high blood pressure or high cholesterol can lead to heart attack or stroke.

The ideal Systolic (or top number) blood pressure should be less than 120. 

The ideal diastolic (or bottom number) should be less than 80

The diagnosis of hypertension is made when the systolic is ≥ 140 or the diastolic reading is ≥ 90.

So, if you don’t know what your blood pressure is, or haven’t had it checked in the past year, I highly recommend that you take a visit to your nearby doctor to get it checked.

If your blood pressure is high, take steps to control it. There are many well-proven medicines to help control this.

Also, changes in your diet, including cutting down on salt can really make a difference. Please check out information on “The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet” to take charge of your own health.

Number 3 – Your Family History

It may feel like your doctor is just being “nosey”, but  your family history actually plays a large role in your risk for heart disease.

If a first-degree male relative (such as your father or brother) has suffered a heart attack before the age of 55, or if a first-degree female relative (such as your sister or mother) has suffered one before the age of 65, you are at greater risk of developing heart disease.

If both parents have suffered from heart disease before the age of 55, your risk of developing heart disease can rise to 50% compared to the general population.

Don’t be shy! Talk about health with your family. You can even use this Family Tree Diagram to help keep things organized.

If it runs in your family, however, you are NOT doomed. You can fight fire with fire. That means lowering your risk by changing behaviors that increase your risk – better eating habits, more physical activity, and working on the other risk factors mentioned today. For example, if your dad had a heart attack, but he was a smoker, not smoking automatically lowers your own risk.

Remember, knowledge is power.

This is the first 3 of risk factors/”numbers” you should be aware of. I’ll post more in a few days to discuss the others.

Please check in later for PART 2!

I know that the last post was quite wordy already, so we will pick up where we left off about other very important risk factors for Heart Disease and “numbers” that you should know…

Number 4 – Obesity

Obesity is calculated as having a BMI (Body Mass Index) over 30. BMI is calculated by using a ratio of your height and weight to determine your amount of body fat. The larger your BMI is, the greater your risk of heart disease, and a number of other diseases.

A BMI of less than 25 is considered ideal. Keep in mind that muscle does weigh more than fat, so this isn’t a perfect equation for everyone. Your doctor can discuss with you if this is an accurate measurement for you. If you’re considered overweight or obese, try to lose weight. One step at a time leads to better success than trying to change everything at once. So, start with eliminating sodas and sweetened drinks. Talk with your doctor, they’ll be happy to help!

I’ve recently been exposed to a free calorie counter called “MyFitnessPal” that will allow you to track your calorie intake and exercises for free. A number of my patients and loved ones have already had success with this. Feel free to check it out.

Number 5 – Your Blood Sugar

People with diabetes have an even higher risk of developing heart disease, such as heart attack or stroke. The increased amount of sugar in the blood can damage the blood vessels in the same way cholesterol can.

If you don’t know your blood sugar, it is highly recommended for you to make an appointment with your nearby doctor to have it checked.

If you have diabetes, and it is still not well-controlled, you can still work with your doctor to improve your numbers. If caught early enough, a lot of people do not even need insulin to control their blood sugars. And, even if you do, it is never considered a failure. It is much better to have your blood sugar controlled by medication, including insulin, than not at all.

Your fasting blood sugar (a.k.a. “blood glucose“) should be less than 100.

If you are diagnosed with Diabetes or “pre-diabetes”, there are great resources out there that can help you develop a healthier meal plan.

Number 6 – Smoking

I know this is not a number, but it is very important to mention. It may be surprising to hear that smoking increases your risk of heart disease or stroke by up to 4 times. Nicotine has been well known to raise your heart rate and blood pressure. Also, a number of chemicals found in cigarrettes can damage your blood vessels and make them sticky – a great recipe for more plaque build-up.

The good news is that when you stop smoking, your risk for heart disease and stroke can be cut in half just one year later and continues to lower over time.

If you’re interested in quitting, please visit, or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW, where they not only offer tons of information and counseling, but can also guide you to free nicotine replacement, such as the patch or gum.

As you can see, this discussion can go on for quite a while…

The bottom line is, know your numbers.

If you don’t know them, find them out.

If you do know them, get them controlled.

The health of your heart is in your hands.

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