Features September 2018 Issue

Your Heart Is Your Responsibility

Your doctor can only suggest ways to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s up to you to act on the advice.

If you have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, or have been diagnosed with heart or vascular disease, what are you doing to lessen the likelihood you will suffer a heart attack or stroke? Are you eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising? Keeping your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels under control? Have you tossed your cigarettes to the curb?

Many Americans find this too much trouble. Why bother, they say, when a pill will fix everything?

Doctors have a hard time understanding this rationale, particularly when the risk of a cardiovascular event is high.

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It takes effort to change old habits, but if your doctor suggests things you should do to improve your cardiovascular health, acting on those suggestions could extend your life and improve your quality of life.

“It’s frustrating when you see patients with heart disease who don’t want to control their risk factors.” says Cleveland Clinic preventive cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.

She cites patients with high cholesterol who refuse to watch their diet because they know other people who eat anything they want and have normal cholesterol. Or those who continue smoking after undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery.

“They are playing with fire,” she says.

What Will You Do For a Longer Life?

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It’s easy to ignore, since it rarely causes symptoms. This is a common reason why many people resist taking steps to lower their blood pressure.

In a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting in April, the vast majority of participants said they’d be willing to take a pill or drink a cup of tea to lower their blood pressure if it meant adding years to their life. Far fewer said they’d be willing to exercise.

“So much disease can be effectively treated with lifestyle modifications, such as walking more, eating less and not smoking,” says Dr. Cho. “We have become too reliant on taking a pill to make the problem disappear. Medications should be a supplement to—not a substitute for—lifestyle changes,” she says.

Why You Should Care

Despite evidence that taking steps to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke increases the likelihood you will live longer, there are many reasons why we don’t comply with recommendations. These include denial, laziness, resentment and a propensity for failing to understand the implications of our actions or lack of action. All are human nature, but all are excuses.

“The answer is that your body is different from someone else’s body. You need to take ownership of your own health,” says Dr. Cho.

The blood pressure study mentioned earlier was encouraging in that people said they would be more willing to exercise the longer it would help them live. But length of life is only one factor to consider. Quality of life is also important.

“Risk-reduction efforts and medications can help you enjoy a better quality of life in your remaining years by reducing your risk of cancer and dementia, as well as heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Cho.

“You have only one body. Every day you make choices that affect it. How you choose to live with your body is up to you.”

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