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4 Heart-Healthy Habits

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Al Waller: Welcome back to another episode of ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth SM. I’m your host, Al Waller. According to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Joining me is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute® here to discuss heart disease— what it is, ways to prevent it, myths, and risk factors.

Mihaela, nice to have you back!

Mihaela Vincze: Good to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Al Waller: It seems we hear about the risk of heart disease more frequently from our doctors the older we get. That said, I feel like I only have a cursory knowledge of what heart disease really entails. Would you mind walking us through the effects heart disease has impacting our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Heart disease is a range of conditions that affect your heart or your blood vessels — heart rhythm problems, heart valve disease, and most common, coronary artery disease. That’s the blockage of blood vessels that supply blood to the heart, which can actually lead to a heart attack. Some people first become diagnosed with heart disease after a heart attack. Therefore, it’s especially important not to wait until it’s too late to keep your heart healthy.

Al Waller: Exactly. What I’m hearing is that when it comes to adopting healthy heart habits, the earlier the better. Is this just a prevention tactic or should young people be taking all this to heart too?

Mihaela Vincze: Those in their 20s and 30s should also be very vigilant about their heart health, especially as conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension become a lot more prevalent. Conditions like these actually increase the likelihood of developing heart disease. So, making healthy choices early on can really improve your heart's future health.

Al Waller: Mihaela, you make an important point here. As we've referenced, in your 20s and 30s, you're healthy. You think you're invincible and ready to take on the world. What does the prudent path forward look like for someone in their 20s and 30s?

Mihaela Vincze: This could look like visiting your doctor, even if you're healthy and you're not having any issues. Get those blood pressure and cholesterol screenings. For young adults, now might even be a good time to develop other healthy habits, like exploring stretch management practices, meditation, journaling, or spending time in nature — these are all really good things to explore since stress increases heart disease risk.

Al Waller: Agreed, healthy habits are both key and advisable. Let's take a look at those who are a little older — in their 40s and 50s. What should this age group do to avoid or prevent heart disease?

Mihaela Vincze: This age group can benefit from strength training and cardio, especially since it can be difficult to find time to do these things when you are raising a family and working. Also, this group should visit their doctor for regular screenings and check-ups, as well as become familiar with the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Al Waller: Great advice, Mihaela. It’s important we do make the time to take care of our bodies — we only get one. It's tough sometimes because life does tend to get busy. What about for those over 60?

Mihaela Vincze: As we get older, our metabolisms tend to slow down. So, it's really important that we keep active and adjust our diets. Always consult your doctor for ideas, especially since everyone has specific needs. The individuals who stay active and connected to their communities are more likely to be healthier and less stressed than those who are isolated and sedentary.

Al Waller: Staying healthy really can take on a different look at different stages of our lives, and also how biologically our bodies’ needs will also change over time.

Mihaela Vincze: You’re right, and although our bodies’ needs do change over time, keep in mind that the tips I’ve given are helpful for people of all ages. It’s never too soon or too late to form healthy habits.

Al Waller: As you've mentioned, healthy lifestyle choices never ever go out of fashion — what are some other tips you would recommend for keeping our hearts healthy at all ages?

Mihaela Vincze: Many forms of heart disease may be treated or better yet even prevented, with certain lifestyle choices. Some of these you may already be familiar with, but for those who need a refresher, these lifestyle factors to reduce your risk include:

  • Follow a healthy diet. A diet that's high in fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart disease.
  • Exercise. Lack of exercise also is associated with many forms of heart disease. 150 minutes of exercise a week will suffice—or 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
  • Stay a healthy weight. Excess weight typically worsens other heart disease risk factors. Talk to your doctor to determine what this weight should be for you.
  • Don’t smoke. Heart attacks are more common in smokers than in nonsmokers. Nicotine can have a negative effect on blood vessels. Carbon monoxide can also damage the hearts inner lining.

Al Waller: Got it – don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, eat sensibly, and exercise. In short, just try to use good common sense. I was thinking we could explore some common myths about heart disease.

Let’s start with a myth that has been passed around – heart disease is a “man’s disease.”

Mihaela Vincze: Myth busted – it’s not true. While men are generally at greater risk of heart disease, the risk for women increases after menopause. Moreover, heart disease kills the same proportion of women as it does men, according to the CDC.

Women are also likely to have more subtle heart attack symptoms, such as severe fatigue or stomach pain, and may not experience crushing chest pain that's often associated with stereotypical heart attack symptoms. This difference can sometimes make it a lot more difficult to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and get the necessary care in time, which is why it's vital to know that heart disease affects both men and women.

Al Waller: That is good to know. Symptoms of a heart attack aren’t just what we see in the movies.

Here’s another myth – and it’s regarding alcohol. Is it considered heart healthy?

Mihaela Vincze: I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The answer is “no.” According to a new report from the World Heart Federation, the widely held notion that consuming even small amounts of alcohol is good for the heart, is not supported by research. The evidence points that even small amounts of alcohol may actually raise the risk of heart disease, rather than protect against it, like we like to believe.

Al Waller: There are going to be a lot of folks out there disappointed in your debunking of that myth! By the way, you can count me in as one of them. Here I was thinking that my occasional glass of Cabernet was making my heart as strong as ever.

I’ve heard another myth – that the risk of heart disease can be passed down from generation to generation. Would someone be predestined to contract heart disease if it runs in their family?

Mihaela Vincze: Not necessarily. A family history of heart disease does increase your risk, especially if a parent developed it at an early age. This means before 65 for a female relative, like a sister or mother, and before 55 for a male relative, such as your brother or father, according to Mayo Clinic. However, there are a lot of lifestyle factors that could reduce your risk.

Al Waller: So, even if heart disease runs in your family, it's comforting to know there are steps you can take to help mitigate risks.

Now that we’ve discussed ways to prevent heart disease, and debunked some common myths— are there any heart disease risk factors that we really cannot change?

Mihaela Vincze: We discussed family history earlier, so that’s one. There are also a few more, but just remember even if you have these risk factors, that doesn’t mean you’re fated to get heart disease. According to the CDC, the risk factors include:

  • Age. Aging increases your risk of damaged arteries and a weakened heart muscle, especially if you don’t make healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Certain health conditions. High blood pressure, unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, and obesity are health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Race or ethnicity. Certain racial or ethnic groups are more likely to have certain health conditions that make their risk higher.

Al Waller: Fairly sobering, Mihaela, but I really appreciate you sharing that with us. Anything else you want to cover before we conclude today?

Mihaela Vincze: All in all, it’s important to recognize what your risk factors are for heart disease—unhealthy weight/BMI, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy dietary choices– and work to correct them. It’s also important to be aware of myths and other misconceptions that could hinder your heart health. All of these efforts can help you prevent heart disease and live a long and healthy life that you deserve.

Al Waller: As always Mihaela, great to have you with us. ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s Podcast Central and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes, including the upcoming episode on aging in place and how to prevent surprise medical bills. Also, in case you missed it, check out our previous episodes on how to boost your retirement savings with the Saver's Credit, and staying healthy while working from home. ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance. If you have comments or feedback, please reach out to [email protected]. Have a topic you’d like to learn more about? Send us ideas.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

Clearpath is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.