Preventing Heart Disease

When it comes to heart disease prevention, no amount of smoking is safe. Smokeless tobacco and low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes also are risky, as is exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,800 chemicals, and many of these can damage your heart and blood vessels making them more vulnerable to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis). In addition, the nicotine in cigarette smoke makes your heart work harder by constricting blood vessels and increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke increases your blood pressure by forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen. Women who smoke and take birth control pills are at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke than are those who don't do either. Worse, this risk increases with age, especially over 35.

Consistently eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products can help protect your heart. Legumes, low-fat sources of protein and certain types of fish also can reduce your risk of heart disease. Limiting your intake of certain fats also is important. Of the types of fat — saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat — saturated fat and trans fat increase the risk of coronary artery disease by raising blood cholesterol levels. Major sources of saturated fat include beef, butter, cheese, milk, and coconut and palm oils. There's growing evidence that trans fat may be worse than saturated fat because unlike saturated fat, it both raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol. Sources of trans fat include deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines and crackers.

As you put on weight in adulthood, you gain mostly fatty tissue. This excess weight can lead to conditions that increase your chances of heart disease — high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Even small reductions in weight can be beneficial. Reducing your weight by just 10 percent can decrease your blood pressure, lower your blood cholesterol level and reduce your risk of diabetes.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your cardiovascular system, including your heart. But without testing for them, you probably won't know whether you have these conditions. Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action. Regular blood pressure screenings start in childhood. Adults should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years. You may need more frequent checks if your numbers aren't optimal or if you have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury.
Adults should have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years. You may need more frequent testing if your numbers aren't optimal or if you have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Some children may need their blood cholesterol tested if they have a strong family history of heart disease.

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