You can start preventing heart disease at any age

Heart complications often occur in patients you least expect.

Take Bob Greenfield, for example. This 61-year-old ate a healthy diet and ran every day, but still ended up needing quadruple bypass surgery.

Just because a patient may not have the typical risk factors for heart complications, doesn’t mean they won’t happen, says Sanford Health cardiologist Kelly Steffen

“I had a patient who was only 42 years old who had a heart attack and ended up needing a stent. He exercised regularly, had no risk factors, and didn’t even really have a family history,” Dr. Steffen said.

And there are some risk factors that can’t be controlled.

“Genetics can have an impact,” she adds.

That’s why routine screening, monitoring and preventive measures are so important to prevent heart disease, heart attacks and any other heart complications, Dr. Steffen says.

“You’re not invincible.”
Regardless of your age, physical activity level or quality of diet, you may still be at risk, Dr. Steffen says.

Dr. Kelly Steffen blows his head off
“The key is to know your risk factors, but also to know that you’re not invincible. Even if you don’t have the classic risk factors, it’s important to watch for symptoms,” she says.

Classic risk factors include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, heavy alcohol consumption and smoking.

To prevent heart disease, Dr. Steffen stresses the importance of annual checkups.

“Everyone should have an annual blood pressure check, heart rate check and all other tests with their doctor from childhood onward. Especially if you are young and have no other risk factors.

“As you get older, at age 40 and beyond, you should have your cholesterol checked once a year,” she says.

Routine visits are also a good way for patients to remind themselves of what their health care providers are encouraging them to do.

“A routine visit with any type of health care provider will allow you to take stock of yourself, how you feel and how you are doing. It may make you think about subtle changes that you might not consider on a daily basis,” says Dr. Steffen.

Support your heart and listen to your body
Whether it’s a shout or a whisper, when your body starts talking to you, listen to it.

“It’s not necessarily that you’re having severe chest pain. But maybe you’re the person who ran 3 miles last year and now you’re running 1 mile and you’re starting to get out of breath. It’s a subtle change.

“You probably won’t run to the doctor just because your exercise endurance isn’t what it used to be, because everyone blames it on age. That’s why annual checkups and routine vitals, even at a very young age, are so important.”

At any age, Dr. Steffen recommends that patients follow a heart-healthy, nutrient-rich diet to support their hearts and have a higher chance of preventing heart disease.

Because high cholesterol is a risk factor, she recommends avoiding highly processed foods. Foods high in trans fats and saturated fats are known to increase cholesterol.

Sometimes, Dr. Steffen and other cardiologists encourage patients to lose weight to improve their heart health. One popular diet for weight loss is the ketogenic diet. Millions of people do lose weight by following a high-fat, low-carb diet, but Dr. Steffen says patients should use the ketogenic diet with caution.

“We know that weight can lead to coronary heart disease. The problem is when people have ketoacidosis and we take their cholesterol, those numbers go off the charts. Their cholesterol, triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) spike during this time.”

Instead, she recommends following a diet rich in vegetables and lean protein.

“Monitoring and eating healthy fats, consuming lean protein and choosing mostly plant-based foods is a much safer diet. Similar to the Mediterranean diet,” she says.

Genetics plays a role
Dr. Steffen says that as patients get older, they become more responsible for their heart health.

But the earlier patients adopt these lifestyle choices, the more likely they are to prevent heart disease.

According to Dr. Steffen, there are things everyone should do: regular health screenings, physical activity, not smoking, knowing risk factors such as family history, eating a healthy diet and limiting stress.

Knowing your family history is especially important, she added, because “you can’t get rid of bad genetics through diet or get rid of bad genetics through exercise.

“If we start early, maybe these practices will become ingrained and you can take better care of yourself as you get older.”

Heart health at any age
• In your 20s: Develop healthy habits – get an annual checkup. Avoid smoking. Exercise regularly. Eat a heart-healthy diet. Limit stress.
• 30s: Keep up with annual exams. Know your heart health data – blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, BMI.
• 40s and 50s: Keep up with annual exams. Know your family history. Know the warning signs of heart attacks and strokes. Be aware of heart health risks after menopause.
• In your 60s and beyond: Keep up with annual exams. Get vascular screenings. Stay active. Take all medications as prescribed. Know the heart health risks of postmenopause.