7 Ways to Tame Heart Disease Fears
WebMD Feature by Kara Mayer Robinson
If you have concerns about your future because you have heart disease, there's good news: You have more control than you may think.
With any serious condition, fear can come knocking. But you can put it in its place.
These seven steps can ease your worries and help you live a full, active life.
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1. Get the facts.
Getting answers to your questions about your health and your future can help you calm your fears and feel more in control.
Ask your doctor to explain what you can expect over the next few months and in the years to come. Go to your next appointment with a list of questions, including any worries you may have.
Be specific. Ask for clear, complete information. Finding out the truth may ease some of your concerns.
2. Voice your fears.
Talking to people you trust can help to take the sting out of fear.
If you're feeling vulnerable or worried about your health, that's normal, says Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD, a psychologist in Basking Ridge, NJ.
But don’t keep your fears inside. That can have a snowball effect, making you worry even more.
Talk about your feelings with a family member, friend, counselor, or doctor. You may also find it helpful to join a support group.
“Getting emotional support from others can help to comfort you, help you feel less alone, and may offer you a different perspective,” Becker-Phelps says.
Your family and friends can also help you manage your health. Talk to them about what it means to have heart disease, and let them know how they can support you.
3. Move to manage your anxiety.
A good way to manage anxiety, or feelings of restlessness, worry, tension, and irritability, is taking action.
So get moving. A simple thing like going for a walk can take your mind off your worries and make you feel better.
If anxiety comes on strong and suddenly, and you have shortness of breath, chest pain, or sweating, it could be panic, which too can be treated. Talk to your doctor.
4. Rethink what's possible.
You can start over and reap the benefits.
Even if your habits haven't been great before, making improvements now can still cut your odds of having a heart attack or stroke, says John Higgins, MD, a sports cardiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
The key things to focus on are:
Exercise. Once your doctor gives you the OK, exercise is not only safe but can boost your health.
Eat and sleep well. Make a good night’s sleep a priority, and keep up a heart-healthy diet.
Quit smoking. It’s not too late. If you quit smoking today, you can help prevent a heart attack or stroke, Higgins says.
5. Take it step by step.
Make a list of things you can do for a healthier lifestyle. And then start changing one habit at a time, like improving your diet or starting a new exercise program.
Trying to change everything at once may be too much. Set goals that are specific and reasonable. Focus on meeting one goal before moving on to the next.
6. Work toward the life you want.
Set goals for tomorrow and for the years to come, Becker-Phelps says. “Finding meaning in life is a great motivator and will help you to obtain greater life satisfaction.”
Think about what you want for the future. What's important to you? How do you want to spend your time, both personally and professionally?
7. If you're depressed, get help.
Depression often rides along with heart disease. If you have feelings of sadness or emptiness, low energy, or changes in sleeping or eating, or if you stop feeling interested in things you usually enjoy, you may be depressed.
If those feelings last more than 2 weeks, talk to your doctor or a counselor. Treating depression will help you feel better and ready to move forward with your life.
How to Wreck Your Heart
When it comes to the heart’s health, there are some things you can’t control -- like getting older, or having a parent with heart disease. But there are many more things you can do to lower the chances of sabotaging your ticker.
“An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure in this instance,” says Gregg Fonarow, MD, an American Heart Association spokesman and associate chief of UCLA's division of cardiology.
To help your heart keep on keeping on, here are 10 things not to do.
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1. Keep smoking.
A major cause of heart disease, smoking raises blood pressure, causes blood clots, and lowers HDL (good cholesterol) levels. And it’s the number one preventable cause of premature death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.
Even though it may be one of the most difficult habits to quit, the rewards of stopping smoking are perhaps the greatest and most immediate.
When you toss the smokes, your heart risk goes down within just a few days of quitting. Within a year, your risk is cut by half. After 10 years of living smoke-free, it’s as if you never smoked at all, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the New York University Women’s Heart Program.
2. Ignore that chest pain.
When your heart literally aches and you don’t know why, it’s time to get checked out.
If you have chest pains while exercising, that’s a red flag. But if it happens after a heavy meal, it’s more likely to be your stomach causing trouble, says Goldberg, who is an American Heart Association spokeswoman and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health.
Heart pain can feel more like a pressure rather than actual pain. People tend to feel it in the front of their chest, with the sensation sometimes extending into the shoulders, up into the jaw, or down the left arm. If you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest and you’re breaking out in a sweat, that’s an urgent matter. Call 911.
Regardless of what you’re feeling or when, even a doctor can’t tell if you’re in real trouble over the phone. So you have to seek medical attention in person to get a definitive answer for chest pain.
3. Just accept that it’s in your genes.
Having a family history of heart disease is a strong risk factor for predicting your own chances of heart trouble.
Having a parent who has had an early heart attack doubles the risk for men having one; in women the risk goes up by about 70%, according to an American Heart Association report from December 2010.
“But heart disease isn’t just what you inherit. It’s also what you do about it,” Goldberg tells WebMD. You can still beat the odds and dramatically lower your risks by doing other heart-friendly things.
For example, lowering your LDL (that’s the bad form of cholesterol) by 50% will cut your risks in half, Goldberg says.
And a 1998 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug can help people with a family history of heart disease lower their risk to less than someone with zero family history. That means in some cases, you could erase your risk.
But you can only be proactive if you actually know whether heart disease or stroke runs in your family. Take time to find out your family’s health history. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Bottom line: There’s no need to let your family history determine your destiny.
4. Skip your checkup.
When you don’t get checked out regularly by a doctor, you might not realize if you have some of the silent heart risk factors that are harder to detect, says Fonarow, who directs the Ahmanson-UCLA Cardiomyopathy Center.
Some of the most common, symptom-free cardiovascular issues are also some of the most easily treated, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
If the cost of a checkup is holding you back, you may have more options than you think. Federally funded health centers allow patients to pay what they can. And local hospitals often offer information about clinics that accept sliding scale payments. The new health care law has provisions for preventive care services, and coverage may be available. Call your local health department for leads.
5. Be a couch potato.
“Being sedentary increases heart risks. Physical activity simply translates to living longer,” Fonarow says.
Exercise helps lower blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, encourages weight loss, benefits blood vessel function, and cuts stress, among other things.
Even if you haven’t been active for the last 20 years, it’s never too late to make an impact with exercise. Just be sure to talk to a doctor before you start a new fitness regimen. Tell your doctor exactly what you plan to do, or ask his or her advice, if you're looking for suggestions.
6. Stop taking your medications.
If you stop taking your heart medications, you may be heading for a cardiac catastrophe.
“It’s only when you’re struck with a heart attack or stroke that many people think, ‘Oh, I should really keep taking my statin drug to lower my cholesterol,’” Fonarow says. He advises looking at heart medications as “insurance” against heart attack and stroke. Never stop a heart medication or adjust the dosage without first speaking with your doctor.
7. Forget your growing waistline -- just buy some bigger pants.
If your belt size is slowly getting bigger, that’s something to worry about.
Excess fat tissue in the midsection -- giving you an apple-shaped figure -- could mean metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of risk factors that can lead to heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, through hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
A hefty waistline is linked to doubling your risk of heart disease, Goldberg says. That’s good reason to redouble your efforts to get in shape through a healthy lifestyle. It's not just about your clothes size.
8. Never mind when your heart flutters.
A fluttering feeling in your heart that causes chest discomfort, shortness of breath, the feeling you could faint, or actual fainting could be a sign of a heart arrhythmia. That’s an electrical problem with your heart, causing it to beat either too fast, too slow, or just irregularly.
If you feel a flutter for a second and it goes away, that’s no big deal, Goldberg tells WebMD. You can probably chalk that up to caffeine, chocolate, asthma, or maybe some cold medications you took. But if it happens frequently or is associated with other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
9. Let your blood pressure run amok.
“A good way to wreck your heart is to leave your blood pressure elevated and untreated,” Fonarow says. Only about half of American adults with high blood pressure keep it under control, he says.
Allowing blood pressure to get out of hand makes the heart work harder and this can lead to heart failure. It can also cause hardened arteries, raising your risks for heart attack, stroke, and other problems.
Even though symptoms of high blood pressure are rare, it’s relatively easy to diagnose. You can even check it yourself with a home blood pressure monitor. Diet, exercise, and medications (if needed) can treat high blood pressure.
10. Eat with abandon.
Being overweight or obese contributes to heart disease, heart failure, and a shorter lifespan, Fonarow says.
No doubt, lasting weight loss is tough to accomplish. But the good news is, even moderate weight loss can improve heart risk factors.
Aim for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts; low in saturated fat and cholesterol; and with almost no trans fats. This does not mean you need to avoid fat altogether. Fats found in fish, olives and olive oil, nuts, and avocados are heart-healthy and should be eaten in moderation.
Reducing your calorie intake by 100 calories per day, will result in a 10 pound weight loss over a year (all else being equal). That’s one slice of bread, one serving of regular soda, or half a candy bar. Small changes add up to big results over time.
You know you're going to snack. We all do! So you might as well make that snack help your health. It's possible, and it can be delicious.
"Reach for snacks that combine 2-3 food groups -- fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats -- and are satisfying," says nutritionist Maryann Jacobsen, RD.
You may be surprised by how many options you have. Try these items that are flavorful, satisfying, and easy to prepare.
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When you're in a rush, reach for seeds or nuts (preferably with no salt or oil), or fruit. If you have a minute or two, put these pairings together.
Dark Chocolate Duo
Having a little bit of chocolate daily may lower your risk of stroke and heart attack. Dip a banana in melted dark chocolate, then let it harden in your refrigerator for a sweet, fiber-rich,potassium-loaded snack.
Or try dark chocolate-covered almonds for something sweet, crunchy, and rich in protein and good-for-you fat. Just keep your chocolate habit modest, so the calories and sugar don't add up.
These are mini-sandwiches you make with crackers. Put a little bit of peanut butter and banana on whole-grain crackers, or mustard and canned tuna, or any other mixture you like.
Edamame With Lemon
Edamame is another name for soybeans. They're naturally low in sodium and a good source of protein.
If you buy them in the pod, they’re quick and easy to steam or microwave. To thaw frozen edamame, run them under hot water. You can also buy them already shelled. Top them off with a squirt of lemon juice.
Apples With Nut Butter
Pair sliced apples with peanut butter or almond butter. Apples are loaded with fiber, and you’ll get a bonus by pairing them with a nut butter.
Eating nuts is linked to lower odds of getting heart disease, says nutritionist and chef Katie Cavuto, RD.
Dress up a cup of low-fat vanilla yogurt (choose one with no added sugar) by topping it with crushed whole wheat cereal, sliced banana, and unsalted sunflower seeds.
Or sprinkle antioxidant-rich dried cherries and pumpkin seeds on top, Cavuto suggests.
Top a whole-grain English muffin with chopped tomatoes, a sprinkle of shredded, low-fat mozzarella cheese, and a pinch of dried oregano. Pop it in your toaster oven or oven broiler until the cheese melts.
A dash of kitchen prep pays off with storage containers packed with flavorful, nutrient-rich, whole-grain salad.
Cook a batch of whole-grain pasta, brown rice, couscous, or quinoa. Let it cool. Mix in any combination of diced vegetables, fruits, or rinsed and drained beans. Add a dash of fresh lime juice and a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.
You'll get fiber and nutrients that are good for your heart, plus great taste.
Pour a cup of nonfat yogurt into a blender. Add a cup of fresh or frozen berries. Blend together, pour into a cup, then freeze for a treat that tastes like frozen yogurt but with no fat or added sugar, and lots of nutrients from the berries.
It's a fancy name for a plate of bite-size veggies with a dip. You'll get fiber and other nutrients for not that many calories.
Load a platter with lots of vegetables in bright colors, like cherry tomatoes, carrots, and green pepper. Anchor it with a healthy dip, like hummus or another bean dip.
“Beans, which are rich in soluble fiber, can decrease your LDL (bad) cholesterol,” Cavuto says.
You can also use a low-fat dip like salsa.