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New Ulm Medical Center

Love your heart: Why reducing your risk factors for heart disease is so important

Dr. Charles Stephens practices family medicine

February is Heart Health Month and a great time to ask yourself: Are you doing all you can to take care of your beloved cardiovascular system?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. More than a million Americans have heart attacks every year. That's why doctors repeatedly advise their patients to lower their cholesterol and blood pressure, stop smoking and start exercising. By now we all know what we can do to reduce our risk for heart disease, but it's also important to know why.

Taking steps now to control your risk factors for heart disease will have a significant impact on your heart health and your risk for having a heart attack in the future.

Lowering cholesterol and blood pressure

Excess cholesterol in the blood accumulates on artery walls. This build-up of "plaque" causes the arteries to harden and become narrow, slowing or blocking blood flow to the heart. If your heart is deprived of blood and oxygen, you may experience chest pain or a heart attack.

Do not hesitate to seek help if you notice one or more of these warning signs of a heart attack. Acting quickly can limit damage to your heart and save your life. For more information about The Heart of New Ulm Project, go to

"Think of too much cholesterol as sludge in the plumbing. The sludge builds up in the pipes and gets hard, particularly where there are corners and sharp bends," said Dr. Charles Stephens, a family medicine physician and the medical director for Hearts Beat Back: The Heart of New Ulm Project (HONU). "So, if you keep the pipes clean and lower your cholesterol, there is less of it around to cause a blockage to your heart."

Healthy arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart, are flexible and strong. Over time however, high blood pressure forces the heart to work harder than it should. This change causes arteries and other blood vessels to become brittle and less able to do their job transporting blood to the body, explained Stephens.

Healthier habits

Smoking damages nearly every organ in the body, including the heart and blood vessels, regardless of your blood pressure or cholesterol levels, said Stephens.

Being overweight or obese can also take a toll on your heart. Excess weight is associated with high cholesterol levels.

"Increased fat storage can also alter the makeup of your blood," he pointed out. "The good news is that even a small amount of weight loss will help."

By exercising regularly or increasing your level of physical activity each day, you can lower your cholesterol and lose weight.

Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity are risk factors for heart disease that can be controlled.

"Having just one of these risk factors can increase your risk for heart disease. For people with two or more risk factors however, the risk is exponentially higher," cautioned Stephens.

Heart attack signs

It's also important to recognize if you are having a heart attack. Stephens pointed out the following symptoms as classic warning signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain. Some people may experience a squeezing sensation or feeling of pressure in the center of their chest. This discomfort may also be felt in the neck, jaw or down the left arm. People with this type of pain often break out in a sweat for no apparent reason.
  • Heartburn or nausea. People having a heart attack often feel sick to their stomach. They may also experience heartburn or gas pain that gets worse and doesn't go away.
  • Shortness of breath. Heart attack victims may feel as if they can't catch their breath for no apparent reason.

Women experiencing a heart attack may have other more vague symptoms, such as headache and weakness, Stephens said.

Source: New Ulm Medical Center - Health Edition
Reviewed by: Charles Stephens, MD
First Published: 02/25/2013
Last Reviewed: 02/25/2013