JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
Heart disease is most often associated with older adults, but younger people are not immune from its devastating effects.
High rates of obesity and high blood pressure are placing people ages 35-64 at risk for heart disease earlier in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We found that young men returning from the Vietnam War had a significant amount of plaque in their arteries,” said Dr. (Maj.) Wyatt Palmer, an Army physician who is the acting chief of clinical medicine at the Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Family Health Clinic. “It’s an ongoing process that goes on throughout your life, so it’s important for people to build a strong foundation when they’re young.”
Palmer’s advice about building a strong foundation in young age resonates as one of the messages for American Heart Month in February, an observance that focuses on the risk factors for heart disease – especially high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking – and how to mitigate those risks.
Palmer singled out smoking as the No. 1 behavioral risk factor for heart disease.
“Smoking is bad, but it’s also the greatest modifiable factor in heart disease prevention,” he said. “There are a lot of resources available in the military to help people break the habit.”
Smoking cessation pathways include medication to eliminate physical dependency and behavioral health counseling to resist the smoking habit, Palmer said.
Smoking is harmful because the chemicals in tobacco smoke harm blood cells and damage the function of the heart and the structure and function of blood vessels, increasing a person’s risk of atherosclerosis, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries, narrowing them over time and limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to organs and other parts of the body.
“Heart disease is essentially a disease of inflammation,” Palmer said. “Smoking is very inflammatory; it will compound any damage you’re doing.”
Smoking is just one of several risk factors for high blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension. Other factors are high salt intake or sensitivity, obesity, physical inactivity, too much alcohol consumption, stress, age and genetics.
Blood pressure, the force of blood against the walls of arteries, is measured in millimeters of mercury. The first number in a blood pressure reading is the systolic pressure, the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats, while the second number is the diastolic pressure, the pressure in the arteries between beats.
“A normal blood pressure is 120/70,” Palmer said. “The blood pressure reading 130/90, which used to be called prehypertension, is now called stage-1 hypertension to increase the focus on prevention. Medication is typically started when the systolic pressure is at 140.”
High cholesterol is another significant risk factor for heart disease because of the part it plays in atherosclerosis.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the body that builds healthy cells, but high levels of it can lead to fatty deposits in the arteries, restricting blood flow. If those deposits break, they can form a clot that causes a heart attack and possibly death.
Causes of high cholesterol include diets high in saturated fats, lack of exercise and physical activity, stress, certain medications, genetics, obesity, smoking and other medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Although genetics can play a role in plaque formation, it can also have the opposite effect, Palmer said.
“Some people are more genetically prone to plaque formation, while some people are blessed,” he said. “They don’t develop these blockages because they’re not genetically prone.”
The good news is that there are a number of ways people can improve their heart health, Palmer said.
A variety of medications can restore blood pressure and cholesterol to normal levels, but diet and exercise are lifestyle changes that can make a big difference, part of the foundation that should start early in life.
“The role of diet is huge,” Palmer said. “Eat more fruits and vegetables, increase your fiber intake and eat more foods that contain omega fatty acids, such as fish. Avoid fried foods and foods that are high in trans-fats and saturated fat.
“You should also eat smaller portions,” he added. “Large portions are a common American problem; our excess allows us to indulge.”
Exercise is another tool in combating heart disease.
“It’s important to get 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five days a week,” Palmer said. “The heart is a muscle; the more you train it, the better it responds. We need to strengthen the heart like we strengthen other muscles.”