Be Smart About Your Heart
By: Tina Schmidt-McNulty MS, RN

The heart is one of the most important organs in the body.  Not only is it the symbol of love, but it is the life-force of the body.  Your heart, like your brain, is a vital organ in your body that you cannot live without.  If the heart functions poorly or becomes diseased, it can greatly affect the quality of your life and decrease the length of your life.  Your heart pumps blood and oxygen to every nook and cranny of your body.  Without an abundant supply of life-giving blood and oxygen, your body functions poorly and every other organ is compromised as well.

Be smart about your heart!  Understand what you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and heart damage.  Simple lifestyle changes can make big impacts on your health and quality of life.  Learn how to start making heart smart choices today.

Heart Disease
“Heart disease” is often used interchangeably with the term “cardiovascular disease”. The range of conditions that typically affect the heart is generally known as heart disease. This includes blood vessel diseases such as coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems, and heart defects. 

Other heart conditions that may affect the heart muscle, valves, or rhythm are also considered forms of heart disease; cardiovascular disease refers to narrowed/blocked arteries that may lead to chest pain (angina), a heart attack or even stroke. (“Diseases and Conditions: Heart Disease,” 2014)

Cardiovascular or heart disease is the leading cause of death for both Men and Women in the United States. (“Heart and Cardiovascular Diseases,” 2012) It has an alarming rate of approximately 1 death every 25 seconds claiming a total of 2500 Americans a day. However, several forms of heart disease can be prevented and treated through making healthy lifestyle changes. 

Heart Disease Risk Factors
There several conditions known as risk factors that can place individuals at a higher risk for heart disease.  Some of these risk factors are controllable (smoking, physical inactivity) and others are not (age, family history).  In either case, making smart choices towards a healthier lifestyle can help decrease the risk of developing heart disease.

Most heart disease risk factors are considered positive risk factors.  A positive risk factor is actually a bad thing, it means that it is positive for increasing your risk of heart disease.  There is one negative risk factor that is good.  If your HDL good cholesterol is above 60 mg/dL it actually reduces your risk for heart disease.

Positive Risk Factors


Family History

  • MI, coronary revascularization or sudden death in father


  • 1st degree relative < 55 years old or mother


  • Other 1st degree relative < 65 years old.

Cigarette Smoking

  • Current smoker
  • Quit within previous 6 months
  • Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke

Sedentary Lifestyle / Physical Inactivity

Not participating in physical activity < 3 days/week for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity for at least 3 months.


  • BMI > 30 kg/m2


  • Men waist girth > 102 cm (40 in)
  • Women waist girth > 88 cm (35 in)


  • Systolic blood pressure > 140 mmHg


  • Diastolic blood pressure > 90 mmHg
  • Confirmed measurements on at least 2 separate occasions, or on antihypertensive medications


  • LDL > 130 mg/dL


  • HDL < 40 mg/dL


  • On lipid-lowering medication


  • Total Cholesterol > 200 mg/dL


  • Impaired fasting glucose (IFG)/fasting plasma glucose > 100 mg/dL and < 125 mg/dL


  • Impaired glucose tolerance (IGT)/2 hour values in oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) > 140 mg/dL and < 199 mg/dL
  • Confirmed measurements on at least 2 separate occasions

Negative Risk Factors


High HDL cholesterol

  • > 60 mg/dL

(ACSM 2014)

There are other risk factors as well that are not part of the cardiovascular disease risk factors and defining criteria. 

Having an unhealthy diet can contribute to the increased risk for CHD. 

Stress and anxiety can also contribute to CHD.  Unfortunately, they can trigger the arteries to tighten causing blood pressure to rise increasing the risk of heart attack. One of the most common reported events for a heart attack is an emotionally upsetting event; especially one that involves anger. 

Stress may also cause an increase in habits such as smoking or overeating which can indirectly raise the risk of CHD.

Poor hygiene can also be a culprit.  Viral and bacterial infections from not regularly washing your hands and other poor hygiene habits can increase the risk of heart infections especially if there is an underlying heart condition. 

Poor dental health can be included as a risk and may also contribute to heart disease. (“Heart Disease” 2014)

Common Symptoms for Heart Attacks: Men and Women
As you can see, warning signs and symptoms may vary between men and women. If you are a woman, please know the symptoms below and realize that your symptoms may not be “classic.”  When in doubt, don’t hesitate to get medical help.  It is always better to be safe than sorry. 



Chest pain/discomfort

Overwhelming or unusual fatigue

Shortness of breath

Sleep disturbance


Shortness of breath

Cold sweat

Indigestion (nausea and vomiting)

Pain in the arm (left), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades

Pain in the arm (left), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades

Jaw pain

Jaw pain



Cold sweat


(“Warning Signs of a Heart Attack”, 2012)

Cardiovascular disease can be improved and even prevented, but it is a life-long commitment. Regular medical check-ups especially for chronic conditions or just for early detection and treatment supports better heart health. Continuous education is important along with making heart smart choices for the prevention of heart disease.

For information on how to manage and prevent heart disease and keep your heart healthy,
see Be Smart about Your Heart, a course offered in the Employee Wellness Education Series by Online Learning Strategies.