Improving your heart health

By Dr. J. Cullen Hardy

February is all about hearts. Whether it’s defined by Cupid’s bow, a box of chocolates, Valentine’s Day or simply the color red, the month is the celebration of the heart.

The best gift you can give yourself during the month of February is a healthy heart. Adopting a healthy lifestyle today can help you keep a strong heart in the future.

First, take a look at sobering information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.  Approximately 630,000 Americans die every year from heart disease.  That is roughly 30 percent of all deaths. The most common type of heart disease in the U.S. is coronary heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. “Ninety-five percent of heart disease is either preventable or treatable based on how we live,” said J. Cullen Hardy, MD, a cardiologist at UVA Cardiology, a department of Novant Health UVA Health System Medical Center.

Heart disease can be prevented through some lifestyle changes in diet, exercise and other controllable factors. In fact, 80 percent of deaths from coronary artery disease were caused by preventable factors, according to the CDC. Show yourself some love by following these suggestions:

Monitor your blood pressure. Check your blood pressure on a regular basis either at home, at a pharmacy or at a doctor’s office.  Ideal blood pressure for an adult is a reading showing less than 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, or 120 over 80.

Get your cholesterol checked. The CDC recommends having your health care team test your blood at least once every five years.

Eat a healthy diet. Choosing to eat fresh fruit and vegetables can help combat heart disease as these foods are low in saturated fat and high in fiber, which is good for cholesterol.

“Food is medicine,” Dr. Hardy said. “You need good nutrition to be healthy, feel good and fight disease.”

The doctor recommends seven servings primarily of fruit and vegetables and reducing sugar and simple carbs in your diet. “This will greatly reduce the bad fats in your blood that lead to heart disease,” he said.

Reduce your sodium intake. Sodium can elevate your blood pressure. Aim for a diet low in sodium which has 2 grams of sodium or less. Start by cutting back on processed foods and eating at fast food restaurants.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease.  The federal government estimates that one-third of adults, or 78 million Americans are obese.  To determine whether your weight is in the healthy range, calculate your body mass index.

Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.

Plus, exercise reduces stress.  “It improves your sleep, focus, your mood and metabolism,” Dr. Hardy said. “It keeps the blood vessels in our heart – and all over our body – healthy by making them flexible and stronger.”

Hardy recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day. “Think of it as revving the engine of your body,” he said. “You know you are getting a good workout when you get your heart rate up and break a sweat.”

Power walking is a great exercise, the doctor added.

Quit smoking. Smoking increases a person’s risk for coronary heart disease by 2-4 times. “Smoking damages your blood vessels from head to toe,” Dr. Hardy said. “By quitting, you can restore the health of your blood vessels and prevent life-threatening medical problems.”

Get a good night’s sleep. Good sleep has many health benefits including better blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according to the doctor. “With good sleep, your metabolism is higher and you feel less hungry,” he said.

Limit alcohol use. Drinking too heavily can raise blood pressure. One drink is equivalent to one, 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

Risk of heart disease varies from individual to individual. Having a close relative with heart disease puts you at higher risk.

Race and ethnicity can also impact your risk of disease. Nearly 44 percent of African American men and 48 percent of African American women have some type of cardiovascular disease. While some factors are out of your control, take charge of those changes you can make to improve your heart health.

For an opportunity to learn more about heart basics and how to keep your heart healthy and pumping, plan to attend “The Doctor is in: Cardiology 101,” a free community lecture featuring Dr. J. Cullen Hardy, a cardiologist with over 29 years of experience. The lecture, sponsored by Culpeper Medical Center, will be held Thursday, Feb. 22, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Culpeper Baptist Church Community room, 318 S. West St., Culpeper. Heart healthy refreshments will be served. For more information, visit