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Spoiler alert: Yes, it can! Start with these 4 tips.

Your heart is an incredible machine. It beats about 37 million times per year, pumping blood through and around your body to supply your organs and cells with vital oxygen and nutrients. 

It also adjusts the rate and force it needs to work at based on various situations, such as exercising in the short term, as well as factors like aging, physical changes and unhealthy lifestyle habits.

The bad news is that some of these factors, such as having clogged arteries, can lead to heart disease – the number one cause of death in the US for both women and men, according to the American Heart Association. 

“Hearing the words ‘heart disease’ can be unsettling,” says Dr. Bryan Martin, a cardiologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. “But the good news is that you can make changes to improve your heart’s health - and start this very minute, if you so desire.” 

What is heart disease?

Also called atherosclerosis, heart disease typically occurs when there is a build-up of cholesterol or plaque inside the arteries. Over time, this build-up can trigger a blood clot or clots that prevent blood from flowing properly. The result can be a heart attack, heart failure or stroke.

“High cholesterol is a big contributor to heart disease,” says Dr. Martin. “However, certain health conditions can also contribute to the development of plaque, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes.”

Who is at risk?

Having an annual physical check-up will help your family doctor determine your risk factors for atherosclerosis. 

The following factors have been linked to heart disease:

  • tobacco smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • obesity
  • type 2 diabetes
  • family history of heart disease, heart attack or stroke

“If you have at least one of these risk factors, it’s important to talk to your doctor about steps you can take to ensure your optimal heart health,” notes Dr. Martin.

If your doctor has any concerns, he or she may order tests for further evaluation, such as imaging tests or cardiac stress tests.

Reversing heart disease through lifestyle changes

While there are many factors that are out of our control, such as age and genetics, there are several steps you can take to begin to undo damage caused by heart disease.

Here are 4 tips to halt heart disease:

  1. Stop smoking. Tobacco is linked to causing blockages and narrowing of the arteries, which means restricted blood and oxygen flow.
  2. Get moving. Regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Focus on a mix of cardiovascular exercise (like walking or jogging), strength training and stretching activities (like yoga) to enhance your flexibility. Strive for about 150 minutes a week of physical activity. 
  3. Change your diet. Cut back or eliminate saturated fats (butter, whole milk, fatty meats) and trans fats (unhealthy oils), as well as high-cholesterol foods, like egg yolks; reduce your sodium intake to less than 1,500 mg a day; and limit sugar and processed foods, including sugary beverages, potato chips, white breads and pastas.
    Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. Plant-based diets are rich in anti-oxidants and disease fighting chemicals called “phytochemicals.”
  4. Lose weight. The more excess body fat you have, the greater your risk of having plaque-clogged arteries. This means your chance of having a heart attack also increases. By lowering your daily calorie intake and being physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, you’ll set yourself up for better heart health – and likely shed some pounds!

If you have any concerns about heart disease, talking with your doctor is the best place to start. He or she can guide you with steps to take to boost your heart health, as well as asses your risk factors. 

“Being committed to a healthy lifestyle can have seemingly endless benefits,” add Dr. Martin. “By making adjustments to your diet, exercising on a regular basis, reducing stress and implementing lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and losing weight, you’ll not only become healthier, you can actually reduce your risk factors for chronic health conditions like heart disease.”

If you or a loved one is recovering from a heart attack or heart surgery or living with heart disease, ask your doctor about taking part in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine® at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. The area’s only intensive outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program, Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™ is designed to restore and maintain your heart health through targeted lifestyle changes. For more information about Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, visit Geisinger.org or call Geisinger Wyoming Valley’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Department at 570-808-7973.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Dr. Bryan Martin
Find a heart care specialist