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Keeping Your Heart Healthy

By Robin Hoogshagen, RPH
Manager of Wal-Mart's Corporate Office Pharmacy

It's easy to have your eyes examined, and many people see their dentist regularly, but do you know how healthy your heart is?

The American Heart Association says heart disease is our country's No. 1 killer, and 63 million Americans face some form of cardiovascular illness. Why do so many of us suffer from heart-related problems? And what should you do to keep your own heart healthy?

The first step is to assess your risk. Some risk factors are within your control, such as choosing not to smoke, making sure you control high blood pressure and limiting the amount of stress in your life.

Other factors are out of your control - things like age, whether heart disease runs in your family, and even your gender (a higher number of men suffer from cardiovascular disease than women).

Let's take a look at how some of these factors relate to you:

Assess your Risk

Cigarette smoking - Don't smoke - and stay away from smokers as much as possible. Chemicals in cigarettes cause blood vessels to narrow and lose their elasticity. In addition, smoking can affect your cholesterol level, another risk factor.

Low HDL cholesterol - If your HDL cholesterol level is too low (40mg/dL or lower), you may be at greater risk for heart problems. HDL cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol because it cleans fat out of the blood stream. The result - high levels of HDL cholesterol can help prevent a heart attack.

High blood pressure - This is easily controlled if detected. If your blood pressure reaches levels greater than 140/90 mm/Hg on a sustained basis, this puts extra strain on your heart and your blood vessels.

Family history of early heart disease - Does heart disease run in your family? If the answer is yes, you'll want to be extra cautious if the men in your family experience heart-related problems in their mid-50s or younger, or if the women in your family experience heart-related problems at 65 or younger.

Age - There's no getting around it: Someone with a younger heart is likely to have fewer heart-related problems than people in their 40s, 50s or 60s. Bad habits can catch up to you at this point in your life. Years of smoking, eating a diet high in fat and empty calories, and letting high blood pressure go untreated can take a heavy toll on your heart.

How to Know if You're Having a Heart Attack

Unfortunately, sometimes even the fittest people can experience heart attacks. If it happened to you, would you know it? And would you know what to do?

Contrary to popular belief, heart attacks aren't always the earth-shaking events we imagine. It is possible to suffer a heart attack and not even know it for days or months, when a medical exam or further testing uncovers it. You might even think you're just having a bad case of indigestion.

Here are signs that might point to a heart attack:

Chest pain - Usually localized in the center of the chest, most heart attacks feel like pressure or squeezing.

Upper body pain - Unlike the arm pain that most of us typically associate with heart attacks, sometimes the pain can be found in surprising areas - the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Shortness of breath - This can happen before, during or after the chest pain.

Feeling ill - You might feel queasy, light headed or just generally ill.

As soon as you suspect you might be having a heart attack, call 911, or get to a hospital immediately.

Medications for the Heart

Most everyone would agree that the best way to address heart disease is to prevent it in the first place through healthy life choices - eating right, getting regular exercise, and not smoking, to name a few.

But for some, choosing a healthy lifestyle isn't enough. For persistent heart-related problems, doctors might recommend prescription medication.

For adults experiencing angina, a painful chest condition, doctors might prescribe nitroglycerin, a tablet that is placed under the tongue that dissolves in one to two minutes. Patients taking nitroglycerin should always keep it on hand.

ACE inhibitors are drugs often used to help to widen the heart's blood vessels to improve blood flow. These medications are taken on an empty stomach, and have side effects that might include a rash, dizziness, a cough with sore throat or fever, or an unusual metallic or salty taste in your mouth.

Beta blockers are sometimes prescribed to help the heart's ability to relax and improve its pumping ability. It is a key medication for people suffering from mild to moderate congestive heart failure. Beta blockers are taken with meals, and sometimes produce side effects such as dizziness, fatigue, cold hands and feet, sudden weight gain, and increased shortness of breath.

In addition, some experts recommend that adults at high risk for heart disease take 75 mg of aspirin daily as a precaution. (Check with your doctor before taking any medication.)

The bottom line is that there are many things you can do to ensure that your heart stays as healthy and fit as the rest of your body. Don't smoke, eat wisely, and choose a healthy lifestyle - and enjoy the fruits of your labor for many years to come.

For more information about heart diseases and integrative treatment strategies, visit Holisticonline.com Heart Infocenter


Robin Hoogshagen, RPH, joined Wal-Mart's pharmacy staff in 1993. Today she oversees the company's corporate office pharmacy where she trains newly hired pharmacists and oversees new projects. The company has nearly 2,900 pharmacies at Wal-Mart Discount Stores, Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets, and SAM'S CLUBS nationwide. Wal-Mart pharmacists are active members of the community dedicated to making prescription and over-the-counter drugs more affordable for all Americans.

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