Keep Your Heart Healthy: Be Proactive, Not Reactive | Hartford Hospital

February 07, 2022

It’s never too late to start taking care of your heart health. But cardiologist Dr Katharine Decena says it’s never too early either.

“If you have a family history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease, it’s never too early to start paying attention to your diet and lifestyle,” she said.

Family history includes anyone in your immediate family who was diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, or had a cardiac event like a heart attack before age 60.

“There’s no prime time to pay attention to your risk factors,” she said.

She added that if you have a family history of high cholesterol, your doctor should start monitoring your levels when you turn 20.

“There are so many tools and technologies available to us now, when we have the data and the knowledge, it’s easier to be proactive,” she said.

The key is to make changes that are lasting, she said, and not drastic and restrictive.

“If it doesn’t fit into your life, you won’t,” she said.

So making small changes, like having one meatless meal a week to start, is a good strategy.

Decena also stressed that it’s important for your overall health — as well as your heart health — to schedule regular checkups with your primary care provider and report any new or unusual symptoms.

“During the pandemic, our behaviors changed and people were reluctant to see their doctor or schedule tests,” she said.

In addition to this, many people suffered from anxiety, stress and depression, which can affect the heart and overall health.

“Any symptoms that are new to you, call your doctor,” she said. “We now have many channels available, and with telehealth you can start there and then figure out the next steps. Don’t ignore the symptoms.


Dr Decena, who practices in Norwich, said a healthy lifestyle can help keep your blood pressure within a healthy range. Preventing high blood pressure, also called hypertension, can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. The goal is a pressure not exceeding 130/80. And if your doctor has prescribed medication to control your blood pressure, Decena noted that it’s extremely important to take it regularly and as prescribed.

Eat healthy

Eat a variety of foods high in potassium, fiber and protein and low in salt (sodium) and saturated fat. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a good place to start if you’re unsure.

This plan recommends:

  • Eat vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
  • Including fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils.
  • Limit foods high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, whole dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oil.
  • Limit sugary drinks and sweets.

Decena said a plant-based diet is optimal, but the so-called Mediterranean diet is also heart-healthy. It is a way of eating based on the traditional cuisines of Greece, Italy and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

Plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, form the basis of the diet. Fish, seafood, dairy products and poultry are included in moderation. Red meat and sweets are eaten only occasionally.

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight increases your risk of high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about what is considered a healthy weight range for you.

Be physically active

Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood pressure. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling, each week. That’s about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Children and teens should get one hour of physical activity a day.

“Everything matters,” Decena said. “Don’t feel like this means you have to join a gym and go there every day and burn yourself out. Take a walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you play golf, don’t hire no cart Use a standing desk If you have a smartwatch, program it to remind you to get up and move every hour.

Do not smoke

Smoking raises your blood pressure and puts you at increased risk of heart attack and stroke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, quitting reduces your risk of heart disease:

  • Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from the cigarette-induced spike.
  • Within three months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve.
  • Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker.

Limit your alcohol intake

Alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Men should drink no more than two alcoholic drinks a day and women should drink no more than one alcoholic drink a day.

Get enough sleep

Lack of regular sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. It is recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.


Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. With high cholesterol, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes these deposits can suddenly rupture and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

Total cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dl are healthy for adults. Doctors treat readings of 200 to 239 mg/dl as borderline and readings of at least 240 mg/dl as high.

The same basic advice provided for hypertension also applies to cholesterol. Healthy eating, exercise, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol, Decena said.

When it comes to what you eat (or don’t eat), a healthy cholesterol diet involves:

  • Reduce saturated fat. Saturated fats, found primarily in red meat and whole dairy products, raise your total cholesterol levels. Reducing your intake of saturated fat can lower your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol.
  • Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats, sometimes listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” are often used in margarines and store-bought cookies, crackers, and cakes. Trans fats increase overall cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils starting January 1, 2021.
  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids do not affect LDL cholesterol. But they have other heart health benefits, including lowering blood pressure. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, herring, walnuts and flax seeds.
  • Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber can reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Soluble fiber is found in foods such as oatmeal, kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples and pears.
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