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Baylor College of Medicine News

Healthy choices can help reduce cardiovascular disease risks

For those suffering from cardiovascular disease, pharmaceutical or surgical interventions are sometimes the only way to improve their health. While lifestyle changes alone won’t help in those situations, doctors as Baylor College of Medicine say that making healthy choices should still be a cornerstone of reducing the risk for development of cardiovascular disease.

“In some cases, lifestyle changes can help eliminate the need for pharmacologic therapy to treat certain risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar,” said Dr. John Farmer, professor of medicine – cardiology at BCM. “I’ve proposed a seven-step lifestyle program to alter cardiovascular risk factors.”

Lifestyle modification tips:

Physical activity: Exercise can improve blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar – all cardiovascular disease risk factors. Additionally, it can also lead to weight loss and improved quality of life.

Diet: A heart-healthy diet is important to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and should include nutrient rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and fiber. Saturated fat intake should be restricted while low-fat dairy products and lean meats encouraged. Fish, which includes omega three fatty acids, should be eaten at least twice a week. Alcohol and beverages with added sugar should be minimized.

Weight loss: The restriction of caloric intake and saturated fat coupled with increased aerobic activity has been shown to result in maintaining a healthy weight. While fad diets may achieve rapid weight loss, it is generally not maintained or healthy. Instead, try keeping a food diary to see what extra calories you can eliminate, start reducing portion size of meals and increase exercise.

Control cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol are associated with increased risk of the development of coronary disease. To lower those levels, avoid processed meats and foods high in sugar and broil or bake food rather than fry. It is important to talk with your doctor about the best way to manage cholesterol levels. Some people may suffer from certain medical conditions associated with high cholesterol, and it can be difficult to manage with diet alone.

Blood pressure: High blood pressure has clearly been linked to increased risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. The prevalence of elevated blood pressure increases with age but changes such as decreasing sodium intake can help for some. Restriction of dietary sodium to less than 1,500 mg per day has been established as a goal to reduce the level of both systolic (upper number) and diastolic (lower number) levels of blood pressure.

Reduction of blood sugar: The prevalence of diabetes, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, in the United States has markedly increased over the past decade. Reducing blood sugar levels could prevent the development of diabetes for some. Increasing exercise and lowering caloric intake can help the body increase sensitivity to insulin, which in turn reduces blood sugar levels. For those already diabetic or at risk for diabetes, talk to your doctor. Changing diet plans may be harmful without guidance.

Stop Smoking: The use of tobacco products has been strongly linked to cardiovascular disease mortality because of its adverse effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure and risk for clotting. 

“While making these changes may not be the answer to completely eliminate risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it is important to emphasize that lifestyle modification can improve health and should be the initial intervention in individuals who are at risk for the development of vascular disease,” Farmer said. “Always let your doctor know when making these changes.”