Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital December 18, 2012
Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiologist Eldrin F. Lewis, MD, MPH, specializes in evaluating patients with heart failure. His goal, however, is to prevent patients from ever needing his expertise.
Knowing that high blood pressure (hypertension) is the biggest risk factor for heart failure, Dr. Lewis tells his patients that they’ll dramatically reduce their risk of developing heart disease if they follow a few simple hypertension-reducing guidelines and keep an eye on their blood pressure. Genetics can indeed play a role in developing high blood pressure, but obesity, inactivity, tobacco and alcohol use, stress, and salt intake are all hypertension risk factors that you can control.
“Eliminate excuses from your vocabulary,” says Dr. Lewis. As a physician with a family history of high blood pressure, that’s what he has tried to do.
- Know your blood pressure
Left untreated, high blood pressure can cause heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, or heart failure. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of their blood pressure levels. Since mild to moderate hypertension usually doesn’t come with any symptoms, you won’t know whether you have it unless you get your blood pressure checked.
There’s no excuse for not knowing your blood pressure, says Dr. Lewis. Everyone should have their blood pressure checked at least once a year, and thanks to the Affordable Care Act, you now can get your yearly physical for free. People at risk or who have already been diagnosed with hypertension, however, should check their blood pressure more frequently. This can be done at your doctor’s office or on your own.
- Get active
“Obesity is a normal response to an abnormal environment,” explains Dr. Lewis.
We now live in a world where it’s easy to be inactive. That’s why you need to be vigilant about incorporating exercise into your daily life. Dr. Lewis, for instance, typically heads up and down the stairs at work instead of using the elevator or escalator. He also recommends parking a bit farther away from the store as an easy way of adding exercise to your day.
Start small and then build more physical activity into your regimen. And be sure to do something you enjoy. Whether it’s dancing, yoga, walking, biking, swimming, or hiking, before you know it, you’ll reach the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity.
Exercise also is a great stress reducer, yet another factor in helping prevent heart disease. Aerobic exercise is great for strengthening the heart, but exercises such as tai chi and yoga are great for relaxing the body and mind. Approximately two and a half hours of exercise per week will reduce stress, blood pressure, and improve how you feel.
- Know what you’re eating
Dr. Lewis advises patients to “stay lower on the food chain.” Aim for foods that are in their natural state, like fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, which are often high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Look at the labels and search for low-sodium options (e.g., frozen vegetables instead of canned foods).
You also should focus on reducing your calorie intake. By reducing your consumption by 500 calories a day, you’ll eliminate 3,500 calories a week – roughly the equivalent of one pound of body weight. This might seem like a daunting task, but Dr. Lewis was able to reach this goal by simply replacing his morning bagel and cream cheese (700 calories) with a serving of low-fat granola and yogurt (200 calories).
- Behavior modification
Don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol heavily (if you drink), and don’t do drugs. Take your blood pressure medicines and don’t stop them without speaking with your doctor.
To learn more about heart disease risks and how to lower them, visit www.brighamandwomens.org/heartrisks.
– Chris P