There are a lot of steps you can take to keep your heart healthy.
Try to be more physically active. Talk with your doctor about the type of activities that would be best for you. If possible, aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most or all days of the week. Every day is best. It doesn’t have to be done all at once—10-minute periods will do. Start by doing activities you enjoy—brisk walking, dancing, bowling, bicycling, or gardening, for example.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking adds to the damage to artery walls. It’s never too late to get some benefit from quitting smoking. Quitting, even in later life, can over time, lower your risk of heart disease and cancer.
Cholesterol is a type of fat in some foods. Eating fatty foods can raise the cholesterol in your blood. High blood cholesterol levels could add to the plaque in your arteries. Your doctor can check the cholesterol in your blood with a blood test. This will tell you your overall or total cholesterol level as well as the LDLs ("bad" cholestrol), HDLs ("healthy" cholesterol), and triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood that puts you at risk for heart problems.)
Follow a heart-healthy diet. Choose low-fat foods and those that are low in salt. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and foods high in fiber like those made from whole grains. And if you drink alcohol, men should not have more than two drinks a day and women only one.
Keep a healthy weight. Your healthcare provider will probably check your weight and height to learn your BMI (body mass index). A BMI of 25 or higher means you are at greater risk for heart disease as well as diabetes (high blood sugar) and other health conditions. Extra fat around the middle of your body may increase your risk of heart disease. A man’s risk of heart disease is increased if his waist measures more than 40 inches. A woman’s risk is increased at 35 inches. Following a healthy eating plan and being physically active might help you.
As you get older, it is important for you to have your blood pressure checked regularly, even if you are healthy. You may feel fine, but if not treated, high blood pressure can lead to stroke and problems with your heart, eyes, and kidneys. Exercise and reducing salt in your diet can help, but often medication is needed to manage high blood pressure and the related problems.
Signs of Heart Disease
Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms, or the symptoms may be barely noticeable. This is especially true in older adults. That’s why regular checkups with your doctor are important.
Contact your doctor right away if you feel any chest pain. However, as you get older, chest pain is a less common sign of heart disease, so be aware of other symptoms. Tell your doctor if you feel:
- Pain in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
- Shortness of breath when active or at rest
- Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
- Cold sweats
- Easily tired or fatigued
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck
- Less able to exercise or be physically active
- Problems doing your normal activities
Problems with a rapid or irregular heartbeat are much more common in older adults than younger people and need to be treated. See a doctor if you feel a fluttering in your chest or have the feeling that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too hard, especially if you are weaker than usual, dizzy, or tired.
If you have any signs of heart disease, your doctor may check your blood pressure and do a blood test to check your cholesterol, a fat that can add to plaques in your arteries. He or she might also do a blood test for CRP (c-reactive protein) and suggest you have an ECG or EKG, an electrocardiogram. This is a test that looks at electrical activity in your heart.
In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist (heart specialist) for further evaluation.
Heart Attack? Call 9-1-1
Act in time: Learn the warning signs of a heart attack. If you or someone you know might be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away. You need to take an ambulance to the hospital as soon as possible. Do not try to drive yourself, and do not have someone else drive you unless there is no ambulance service where you live. The sooner you get to a hospital, the more can be done to stop any damage.
These warning signs can include crushing chest pain and/or discomfort or pain elsewhere in the upper body, neck or arms, nausea, a cold sweat, fainting or lightheadedness, or shortness of breath.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
You might consider asking your doctor the following questions to learn more about your risk for heart disease and what to do about it. Be sure to ask what you can do if you are told you are at increased risk or already have a heart problem.
- What is my risk for heart disease?
- What is my blood pressure?
- What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.)
- What are my body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement? Do they mean that I need to lose weight for my health?
- What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean that I’m at risk for diabetes?
- What other screening tests do I need to help protect my heart?
- What can you do to help me quit smoking?
- How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
- What’s a heart-healthy eating plan for me?
- How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack? If I think I’m having one, what should I do?