Practical advice in pursuit of a healthy heart

February is Heart Health Month and a good time to consider how you can improve your health and reduce your risk of developing coronary artery disease, or heart disease. Heart disease is a significant problem in America and, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it may be the cause of death for up to 25 percent of men and women.

Coronary disease is the development of cholesterol laden plaque within the wall of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. This problem develops slowly over a long period of time and may not cause any noticeable symptoms for a while. Symptoms may only be noticed with exercise or exertion, but become more evident when there is a severe limitation to blood flow. A heart attack can then occur when blood flow is so limited that a portion of the heart can’t get adequate oxygen and nutrients and part of the muscle dies.

We don’t know all the factors that lead to coronary disease or heart attacks, but we do know some risk factors and therefore have some practical advice to follow:

A study by the U.S. surgeon general suggests that 30 percent of cardiovascular deaths are related to smoking. Secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of developing heart disease or stroke by 25 – 30 percent. People that smoke (or are exposed to smoke) are more likely to develop a buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries and inflammation within those plaques, which lead to heart attack. Stopping the use of tobacco products is difficult, but quitting significantly reduces deaths related to heart disease Free help is available from the Montana Quit Line at 1-800-quit-now or www.QuitNowMontana.com. Another resource is the American Indian Commercial Tobacco Quit Line at 1(855)372-0037 or www.MTAmericanIndianQuitLine.com.

Regular exercise reduces the risk of developing heart disease in addition to other diseases that can lead to heart disease and heart attack, like diabetes and high blood pressure. The good news is that you don’t have to become a super athlete to reduce your risk. Simply having a lifestyle that incorporates regular activity is recommended, and you can choose from activities you enjoy, like walking, pool exercise, or even dancing. If you have trouble getting out a chair you can do chair exercises, just make sure to do them every day. The goal is to exercise at what feels like moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you can only work this into your schedule three days a week, then up the intensity. Exercise is beneficial even when you’re not losing weight, so you should strive to do it consistently.

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Food is a controversial and confusing topic because there is conflicting data and advice. This is partly because many diets are trying to achieve a specific and sometimes short-term goal. In my opinion, your diet is part of your lifestyle and will need to incorporate a variety of foods. I tell patients that it’s important to eat foods that will be digested slowly. This causes lower peaks in blood sugar and insulin levels in your body, which decreases the risk of developing vascular inflammation. An easy tip is to avoid processed and ultra-processed foods and instead eat foods that come from a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy protein. I don’t tell people to stop eating meat, but I do recommend choosing wisely. If you enjoy red meat, venison is a great choice because it’s high in protein and low in fat.. Wild fish, lean pork, and chicken that is boneless and skinless are also healthy sources of protein. It’s also important to limit processed meats. I love bacon as much as anyone, but you should enjoy tasty treats like this sparingly.

If you have conditions that can lead to heart disease and heart attacks like diabetes, high blood pressure or dyslipidemia, see your doctor to make sure that you are on the appropriate medications. Your doctor can help determine appropriate medications and what level of control is adequate to lower your risk.

Being heart healthy and the active Montana lifestyle go hand and hand. Go outside, enjoy the fresh air and get some exercise in our beautiful state. Eat locally sourced healthy foods that include a variety of Montana whole grains, dairy, fruits, vegetables and healthy protein to enjoy and live a long and healthy life.

Robert Phillips, MD is a Cardiologist at St. Peter’s Health Medical Group. Phillips earned his medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine. He completed an internship at the University of Kansas Medical Center, internal medicine residency at the University of Washington and a cardiology fellowship at the University of Washington and the University of New Mexico. Dr. Phillips specializes in invasive non-interventional cardiology and is certified in both comprehensive adult echocardiography and nuclear cardiology. He is a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine and is board certified in internal medicine and cardiology. Phillips accepts patients by referral.