By Jann Wiswall

It’s been a month since many of us made our New Year’s resolutions. If your resolutions had anything to do with losing weight, eating healthier foods or getting more exercise, let this February’s American Heart Disease Awareness Month remind you why these particular resolutions are a great idea on many levels. They’re the best things you can do to help prevent heart disease, not to mention a myriad of other health issues.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease (also called coronary artery disease or cardiovascular disease), which occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Coronary heart disease can cause heart attack, angina, heart failure and arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms).

Each year, says the CDC, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack, and some 600,000 people die from heart disease — that’s one out of every four deaths. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

To put a dollar figure on the situation, the CDC estimates that cardiovascular disease “costs the United States $312.6 billion each year. This includes the cost of health care services, medications and lost productivity. These conditions also are leading causes of disability, preventing Americans from working and enjoying family activities.”

But, says the CDC, despite these alarming facts, heart disease is treatable and preventable. Indeed, our risk for developing heart problems can be significantly reduced with a few lifestyle changes.

In addition to quitting smoking, cardiologist Thomas P. Smith, M.D., says the top three lifestyle changes that lead to better heart health are: 1) keeping a healthy weight, 2) eating a healthy diet, and 3) getting regular exercise.

Keeping your weight in the normal range is the most important thing anyone can do to reduce their risk for heart disease, as well as for diabetes and other chronic diseases, says Dr. Smith, who is affiliated with Catholic Health Services of Buffalo and heads Bertrand Chaffee Hospital’s Heart Center. Too much body weight strains your body’s organs and forces them to work harder at what they do.

Simply stated, people are overweight because they eat too much and exercise too little, says Dr. Smith. This is why cutting calories is at the top of his list of strategies for people who need to lose weight.

“Most of the popular diet programs are successful for many people, but only for the short term. Once they go off the diet, they go back to their old ways and start gaining weight again. The most effective way to lose weight and keep it off is to reduce caloric intake.”

A proven way to do that is to eat more fruits and vegetables, which are packed with essential vitamins, fiber and healthful proteins. But, he adds, avoiding saturated fats — which are pervasive in the American diet — and reducing consumption of starches and carbohydrates is just as important as increasing your fruit and vegetable intake.

“Studies show that in many parts of the world, such as most Asian and African cultures, heart disease is rare because saturated fats and carbohydrates aren’t part of the regular diet and fruits and vegetables are,” says Dr. Smith.

In Europe, the incidence of obesity and diabetes (both risk factors for heart disease) are much lower because people eat smaller portions and, therefore, fewer calories.

“In the U.S., we’re eating too many over-produced foods with added fats, salt and sugars that are bad for our hearts and weight control. Plus, we eat at restaurants that serve meals in portions equivalent to three or four meals worth of calories. It’s no wonder there’s an obesity epidemic in the U.S.”

Dr. Smith recommends a Mediterranean-style diet that is rich in protein from fish, lean meats, eggs and low-fat dairy products, along with fiber and nutrients from lots of vegetables and fruits.

He says, “I’ve found this is one of the easiest diet types for Americans to adopt.”

To help you avoid temptation, it might also help to try to look at food in a different way. For many people, food becomes a way to pass time, or find satisfaction or take comfort. But Dr. Smith says that “people should eat to live, not live to eat.”

Exercise is the other critical piece of the heart health picture. Dr. Smith says that adequate exercise is anything that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes at least four times per week.

“The best exercise regimen includes light weight lifting, stretching and aerobic activity,” he explained.

Aside from the physical health benefits of exercise, people often experience a “runners high” from exercising, which improves their moods.

Dr. Smith pointed out, “It just feels good.”

During February, the CDC is providing a tip a day to help you on the path toward a healthier heart. Visit



of Heart Attack

The five major symptoms of a heart attack are:

• Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back

• Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint

• Chest pain or discomfort

• Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder

• Shortness of breath

If you think that you or someone you’re with is having a heart attack, don’t hesitate. 

Call 911 immediately.

Source: Centers for Disease Control