Keep Your Heart Healthy

By Gloria Romano-Barrera

To preserve heart health, it is important to exercise, get enough sleep, and consume less sodium. According to Monik C. Jiménez, ScD, SM, FAHA, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Associate Epidemiologist in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and American Heart Association Volunteer expert, it is essential to recognize that Latinos in the United States do have a higher prevalence of risk factors that can lead to heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions.

“For example, higher risk of having or not knowing that they have high cholesterol, much higher risk of diabetes than their white counterparts, and also, high prevalence of high blood pressure,” she shares. “These are all sort of what we call cardiovascular risk factors that can increase somebody’s risk of having a heart attack or having a stroke. These are really important risk factors that can be mitigated through lifestyle changes.”

Lifestyle changes can include everything from eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, seeds to cooking with healthier fats (such as olive and canola oil) and increasing your physical activity to burn more calories. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (or an equal combination of both) each week, advises the American Heart Association.

It’s not necessary to give up your favorite meals or to make eating healthy complex. As part of its Hispanic-Latino strategy, the American Heart Association is launching a nutrition campaign in March to celebrate National Nutrition month and encourage

members of the Hispanic-Latino community to make minor dietary adjustments to help prevent and treat health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 Diabetes.

“It’s not that our original diets are poor, it’s rather the high processing of foods, movement towards high sugar diets, high salt diets, and highly processed food that can get us into a lot of trouble and increase our risk of diabetes and high blood pressure in particular,” she shares. “When we think about what those important points are to be modeling— healthy eating and physical activity— it’s really as early as possible. A lot of times, what can happen is making those healthy choices can be really challenging for people because of financial constraints or living in areas that don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So, the more that we can support systems, which increase access to healthy fresh foods, then, the more we can empower families to be making those choices as early as possible with their children, not just making the choices for their children but also for modeling those eating behaviors.”

Strokes, hypertension, and heart attacks come to mind while discussing cardiac problems. However, the signs of a heart attack in women can differ from those in men, which Jiménez claims is one reason that makes it particularly challenging for women. “A lot of times in the clinical practice, physicians may not always counsel women, and in particular Latinas, about recognizing those signs and symptoms of either a heart attack or a stroke,” she shares. “For a heart attack, sometimes its symptoms that a woman might feel is like pain in her arm, or nausea, neck pain. These are some symptoms that you might think of something else, some people think that it’s indigestion, or something like that, when in fact, they could be indicative of a heart attack with respect to a stroke.”

Cardiovascular disease, overall, includes coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure and hypertension/high blood pressure. Coronary heart disease includes clogged arteries or atherosclerosis of the heart, which can cause a heart attack. Known generally as ‘heart disease’, coronary heart disease remains the #1 cause of death in the U.S. Stroke continues to rank fifth among all causes of death behind heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, and

unintentional injuries/accidents. COVID-19 appeared in the list of leading causes of death for the first time in 2020, the most recent year for which final statistics are available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Overall, Cardiovascular disease continues to be the #1 killer globally, taking the lives of more than 19 million people around the world each year, including people of all ages, genders, and nationalities. Yet, the risk factors that lead to heart disease and stroke continue to disproportionately impact certain populations in the U.S. and worldwide. The American Heart Association encourages you to learn about Life’s Essential 8, key measures for improving and maintaining cardiovascular health. Better cardiovascular health helps lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other major health problems.

“We have to advocate for ourselves; we have to ask,” she advises. “If your primary care doctor hasn’t talked to you about your risk of a heart attack or stroke, bring that conversation to them. Ask them. Make sure that if you are taking medications for diabetes, blood pressure or cholesterol, make sure that you stick to your medication regimen. Adherence is critical. Initiating those conversations is critical, and utilize your support structures to help you and help one another make those healthy choices, which can have an important long-term impact.”