The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is probably occupying most of your attention when it comes to health concerns, but it’s important to remember that other health conditions haven’t taken a break. Take a heart disease, for example. It is one of the most preventable conditions out there, yet it claims more than 850,000 lives every year in the United States alone. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person dies of a heart attack every 40 seconds.
And while many people think that heart attacks occur when the heart stops beating—an entirely different event known as sudden cardiac arrest—they are actually caused by a blockage in the arteries created by a build-up of plaque, says Alexandra Lajoie, MD, a non-invasive cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
The good news is that understanding your family history and making healthy lifestyle choices can significantly reduce your risk of heart attack. Here are some important steps you can take today so you don’t miss a beat.
1. Know your family history
If you have a family member who has had a heart attack, you are at a greater risk of having one yourself. That’s why it’s so important to share this information with your doctor so they can recommend some lifestyle changes and screenings that can help you get ahead of any potential problems.
“Everyone should have basic cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, but if you have a family history, your doctor might recommend a thorough cardiac evaluation,” Lajoie says.
2. And get an annual physical
Be sure to get a yearly check-up with your primary care physician to get routine cholesterol and blood pressure screenings. Some doctors also perform an electrocardiogram, or EKG—a test that measures the electrical activity of your heartbeat.
“Patients that check in with their doctor will be able to have their risk factors of coronary artery disease assessed at this time,” says Nicole Weinberg, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “You will have an EKG, blood pressure check, and your fasting cholesterol checked. If these are assessed at least once a year, then there are less surprises as it relates to these ‘silent killers.'”
3. Assemble a healthcare team
If you have a family history of heart disease or are living with a chronic health condition that puts you at risk for heart attack, it’s important to create a healthcare team of physicians and maybe even a registered dietitian and personal trainer to help you maintain a healthy weight and diet, and to stay on top of your screenings.
4. Cut back on saturated fat
Fattier cuts of beef, lamb, pork, butter, and cheese are some foods that are naturally high in saturated fat, which is something important to monitor for your heart health.
“Eating foods that contain saturated fats can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, and high levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease,” says Amnon Beniaminovitz, MD, a cardiologist at Manhattan Cardiology. With that, the AHA recommends that you limit your saturated fat intake to no more than five to six percent of your daily calories—which comes down to 13 grams or 120 calories in a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
Beniaminovitz also recommends limiting the amount trans fat you consume. Found in processed foods like crackers and cookies, these unhealthy fats raise your bad LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL—or good—cholesterol, putting you at risk for cardiac arrest.