Healthy Heart Guide: Article 2 of 7

Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

Private: Aileen Sauris, ANP
Contributor Aileen Sauris, ANP
Private: Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD
Contributor Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD

About half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors for heart disease and stroke: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

Both heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in the United States. Small but gradual lifestyle changes can have a big impact in preventing disease, or in keeping it from worsening. They can also help you prevent serious complications like heart attack.

Find out what you can do to decrease your risk of developing these conditions. Learn the signs and symptoms and what to do if you or a loved one has them.

How can you reduce your risk of heart disease or stroke?

While you can’t change risk factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, and family history, there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of these conditions.

1. Check your fasting glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol and BMI

Know the following health measures and work together with your health care provider to prevent heart disease and stroke:

  • Fasting glucose: This test measures the amount of sugar in your blood after you haven’t eaten for at least 8 hours. Your fasting glucose should be less than 100 mg/dl.
  • Blood pressure: A healthy blood pressure is about 120/80.
  • Cholesterol: There are several measures of cholesterol that are important in determining cardiovascular disease risk. Your high density lipoprotein (good) cholesterol should be greater than 50 mg/dl. Low density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dl. Triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dl.
  • Body mass index (BMI): This is a measure of the relationship between your height and your weight. If your weight is too much for your height, you may have excess body fat. This can cause high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Your BMI should be between 18.5 and 24.0. Use this BMI Calculator to find out your BMI.

2. Eat healthy foods

Choose healthy foods that are low in fat, added sugar and salt. Try to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables along with whole-grain or high-fiber foods. Limiting red meat and eating fish twice a week also can lower your risk of heart disease. The Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard School of Public Health can help guide your meal planning.

3. Stay active and quit smoking

Good lifestyle habits can keep your health on track. Regular, moderate-to-intense exercise is key to reducing cardiovascular disease risk. Be active for 30 minutes or more on most or all days of the week. If you smoke, quit. Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. and contributes to heart disease and stroke. Use our tips to improve your chances of quitting smoking for good.

What are symptoms of a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart muscle becomes blocked. If you have heart disease, you’re at increased risk of having a heart attack.

Common symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • Pressure, fullness, burning, or squeezing sensations in the chest
  • Pain in the chest, neck or back
  • Unusual shortness of breath
  • Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating
  • Unusual fatigue (feeling very tired)

It’s important to note that heart attack symptoms vary among men and women, and from person to person. If you’re unsure, don’t wait. Call 911 for help.

What are symptoms of a stroke?

A stroke happens when a blood clot blocks the blood supply to a part of the brain, or when a blood vessel in or around the brain bursts. In either case, parts of the brain can become damaged or die. Recovery from a stroke can take months or years. Some patients never fully recover.

The acronym FAST will help you recognize the warning signs of a stroke in yourself or a loved one:

  • Face: Drooping on one side of face, numbness or sudden drooling.
  • Arms: Trouble holding things or walking, numbness, or one arm drifts down or can’t be raised.
  • Speech: Slurred speech that doesn’t make sense and trouble reading, writing and understanding what people are saying.
  • Time: If you suspect a stroke, act quickly. Time is critical in preserving brain function.

Private: Aileen Sauris, ANP
Aileen Sauris, ANP

Aileen Sauris is a Nurse Practitioner in the Cardiovascular Wellness Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where she coordinates multidisciplinary patient care for the prevention of heart disease.

Private: Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD
Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD

Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD, is Chief of Vascular/Endovascular Neurosurgery in the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH).

Before you go,

Our experts address congenital heart conditions, heart disease and symptoms of heart problems. They advise on steps you can take to keep your heart healthy and strong. Read more articles about breakthroughs in treating heart conditions.