Improve Heart Health, Prevent a Stroke

Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke nearly five times.

Oak Park, IL (February 14, 2013) — As the obesity rate among Americans continues to climb, so does prevalence of heart disease and stroke risk. But lifestyle changes and medications—if needed—can help to reverse those trends for people who commit to improving their health, according to heart specialists who spoke at a February 13 program for American Heart Month.

“Eighty percent of heart disease and strokes can be prevented if we do the right things. But with that fact, a lot of people still resist doing what they need to do. If you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, don’t be in denial. Just accept it and do something about it,” said Annabelle Volgman, MD, professor of medicine and medical director of the Rush Heart Center for Women, Rush University Medical Center and Rush Oak Park Hospital.

Dr. Volgman called special attention to atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia, or heart rhythm disturbance, and to women, whose rates of heart disease and stroke have outpaced those of men in recent decades. Whereas stroke risk for men age 65 and over has decreased, it hasn’t changed for women in that group. And for younger women it has quadrupled.

“We can’t just worry about our husbands, our fathers. We have to worry about our mothers, ourselves,” Dr. Volgman said.

One way to decrease stroke risk, she said, is to take steps not to get atrial fibrillation. In this type of irregular heartbeat, blood flow in the left atrium is disturbed, causing blood clots to form. If they break off, they go directly to the brain, causing stroke. Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include heart quivering, palpitations and sudden fatigue. “If you feel irregular heartbeats,” she said, “make sure that your doctor knows.”

The prevalence of atrial fibrillation increases with age and it may even be linked with dementia. But blood-thinning medications can help, as can lifestyle changes, she said. She and Robert Creek, MD, both of whom specialize in cardiovascular disease, offered these lifestyle tips for improving heart health and decreasing stroke risk:

• Work 150 minutes of physical activity, especially walking, into your week.
• Keep your body mass index under 30. Pay attention to your middle, as abdominal obesity is particularly dangerous.
• Be smart about what foods—and how much—you choose to eat.
• Mind your blood pressure, cholesterol and, if applicable, diabetes and family history—all of which are risk factors.
• Don’t get atrial fibrillation. 
• Quit smoking.

“There’s no time better to quit than now if you’re a smoker,” Dr. Creek said. “And guess what the treatment is for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and so many of these other conditions. Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise.”

Finally, have fun, stay calm and be happy. “Have some lightness in your life,” Dr. Volgman concluded. “Laughter is the best medicine.”

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