February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is a leading cause of poor health and disability in the United States. It’s responsible for eroding the quality of life and mobility for millions of people. Unfortunately, advanced age increases the likelihood of developing heart disease. According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60 percent of American adults age 65 and older have some type of heart disease. However, there are steps that people with heart disease can take to protect their health and live fuller lives.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaques, in the walls of the coronary arteries over time. The coronary arteries surround the outside of the heart and supply blood nutrients and oxygen to the heart muscle. When plaque builds up inside the arteries, there is less space for blood to flow normally and deliver oxygen to the heart. If the flow of blood to the heart is reduced by plaque buildup, it can cause angina (chest pain or discomfort) or a heart attack. When the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen and blood nutrients, the heart muscle cells will die (heart attack) and weaken the heart, diminishing its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body.
Eating for better health
Heart disease and its risk factors can be treated in three ways: by making heart-healthy changes in daily habits, by taking medication, and in some cases, by having a medical procedure. Adopting new lifestyle habits, such as eating a heart-healthy diet, can go a long way in helping to reduce the risk for more heart disease complications or worsened symptoms. According to National Institutes of Health (NIH), eating heart-healthy involves consuming balanced amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meats, legumes, soy products and vegetable oils (except coconut and palm oils). Sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars and alcohol are limited.
Before beginning any nutritional change, a person with heart disease should first consult their doctor. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is an example of an eating plan that has been proven to lower blood pressure and bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. The plan does not require special foods or complex recipes. Instead, it includes guidelines on daily servings from a variety of food groups. The number of servings is based on an individual’s daily calorie needs. Women ages 51 and older need between 1,600-2,200 calories. Men ages 51 and older require 2,000-2,800 calories.
An example of daily recommendations for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet would include four to five servings of fruits and vegetables, six to eight servings of whole grains, two to three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products, six or less servings of lean meats, poultry or fish; two to three and servings of vegetables fats and oils. Sodium should be limited to a maximum of 2,300 milligrams a day. However, lowering sodium intake to a maximum of 1,500 milligrams a day has been proven to have a greater impact on lowering blood pressure. Eating nuts, seeds and legumes should be limited to four to five servings per week. Sweets, such as sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts, are limited to weekly servings of five or less.
Adopting healthier eating habits like the DASH eating plan is just one part of being heart-healthy. A combination with other lifestyle changes can help control blood pressure and LDL-cholesterol for life. Other changes include:
- Limiting alcohol
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Managing stress
- Physical activity
- Smoking cessation
For more information about the DASH eating plan and other steps that can help support heart health, click here.