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Eight Essentials to Begin Implementing Today for a Heart-Healthy Life

Young woman in a workout outfit making a fruit salad in a kitchen.

At 49 years old, Vickie was in perfect shape. She had always maintained a healthy lifestyle that included a combination of daily workouts, outdoor activities, plenty of water, and, aside from occasional cravings for chips, a healthy diet. Vickie had never smoked in her life and almost never consumed alcohol. A year before she turned 50, she underwent a perfect physical exam. Nothing could have prepared her for the sudden change in her life.

Only three months after her annual doctor’s visit, Vickie started experiencing symptoms that were not typical for her. She began getting tired easily and feeling unwell. She went to see her doctor but, even this time, her bloodwork came back normal. By May 2011, her symptoms intensified. Vickie had trouble even walking to the closest bus station without becoming extremely lethargic. She could not complete a workout without total exhaustion. This is when she knew something was not right. She was referred for an EKG, and the test came back with worrisome results. She was immediately sent to see a cardiologist. A follow-up stress test confirmed that there was a problem with her heart. A comprehensive cardiac catheterization showed 80 percent blockage in the heart, which was in desperate need of oxygen.

Vickie underwent surgery and received a stent to help open her blood vessels. “When I woke up, I felt amazing,” Vickie remembers. Soon after, she returned to exercising.

Like many women, Vickie didn’t experience the typical symptoms that signal a heart issue. “I’ve never had chest pain. I was suddenly feeling tired and had this pain under my right elbow,” she recalls.

One person dies every 33 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease, according to the numbers published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). February is American Heart Month, an initiative aiming to bring attention to the problem.  

Recognizing the Symptoms of Heart Attack and Stroke

Dr. Divya Gupta is a Medical Director for Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant at Emory Healthcare and a board member of the Metro Atlanta American Heart Association. We asked Dr. Gupta about the warning symptoms people should look for when it comes to heart disease and how to protect themselves.

The experienced cardiologist says that the warning signs of a heart attack can vary between men and women. A typical sign for men is pain in the chest. Women may experience pain in the jaw, in the back, or feel more fatigued than usual all of a sudden. “Pay attention to anything that may be different from what your usual baseline is,” Dr. Gupta says.

The symptoms that may be significant for stroke include confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, feeling numb, especially on one side of the body. A severe headache for no known reason can be a significant sign as well. Trouble seeing in one eye, trouble walking, dizziness, and loss of balance and coordination may also be present. Slurred speech may be the first sign of a stroke. “Time is Brain and Time is Heart. Make sure you contact someone as soon as possible if you experience any of these symptoms,” Dr. Gupta warns.

Eight Factors that Affect Heart Health

Also known as American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8, there are four health behaviors and four health factors that may affect the person’s heart and overall health.

Blood Pressure

The first significant factor related to heart health is blood pressure. Normal range is less than 120/80 mm Hg. It is considered elevated when the upper number is between 120 and 129, and the lower number is less than 80. Call a doctor immediately if your blood pressure is 180/120 or greater. This is considered a hypertensive crisis – a condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Blood Lipids

The blood lipid levels are another crucial factor that affects the heart and overall health. There are two types of cholesterol – LDL or bad cholesterol and HDL or good cholesterol. Generally, lower LDL levels are considered good. Maintaining a healthy level of HDL cholesterol can provide protection against heart attacks and strokes. The optimal total cholesterol level is about 150 mg/dL, with LDL-C at or below 100 mg/dL.

Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is one way to prevent heart disease. Strive for a BMI (Body Mass Index) less than 25 kg/m2. To calculate BMI, divide a person’s weight in pounds by square height in inches.

Blood Sugar

The fourth health factor that contributes to heart health is blood sugar. No history of diabetes and fasting blood glucose of less than 100 mg/dL is considered normal.

Additionally, there are four behaviors that can help protect your heart, explains Dr. Gupta.

Healthy Diet

Managing a healthy diet is a crucial factor in preventing heart disease. Choose fruits, veggies, grains, omega-3 fatty acids, and lean meats. Consuming fruits and vegetables have been linked to improved mood. There’s a wide variety of healthy recipes influenced by the Mediterranean or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. They are rich in vegetables, fruit, and lower in fat and cholesterol. Try to limit the consumption of refined sugars, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils like coconut and palm. Avoid highly processed foods like packaged chips and cookies, white bread, packaged pasta, frozen pizza, energy/protein bars, sweetened breakfast cereals, baking mixes, and instant soups. Always read the label and check for added sugars and sodium content. Select products that contain less than 20 percent of the daily value of these ingredients.


Movement is an essential element of a healthy lifestyle. CDC recommends 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-aerobic activity per week. “Movement can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and control blood sugar. It can improve sleep, boost immunity, and increase energy levels. Making movement part of your life can relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and anger,” explained Dr. Gupta.

Adding movement to a regular daily routine does not have to involve a huge life change. In fact, the so-called non-energy exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT can help burn up to 15 percent of the total calories per day. These are the calories an individual burns through activities like raking leaves, dog walking, or cleaning, for example. One trick to help you add more movement in your day is to select the stairs over the elevator or pick the parking spot that is further away from the location you are visiting.


Another vital element is getting enough quality sleep. This means getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. “A better sleep is linked to a stronger immune system, improved mood, and increased energy. It can make you more creative,” explained the cardiologist.

How to improve your sleep? A successful sleep routine begins during the day. Moving more and being outdoors can improve sleep quality. Avoid nicotine and caffeine. Before bed, stay away from heavy meals. Reduce exposure to technology like cell phones, tablets, or TVs.

Remember, changing your sleep routine, even on weekends, can lead to serious sleep problems. Sleep also helps lower your risk of chronic diseases and Type 2 diabetes.

Quit Tobacco

Smoking continues to be the primary cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, claiming the lives of over 480,000 Americans annually. On average, smokers live 10 years less than nonsmokers, and vaping is a huge threat to the youth. Many believe that smoking calms the nerves. However, the reality is that this habit increases stress levels. Smoking can easily trap individuals in a cycle of addiction. Quitting smoking or vaping can be challenging, but there are multiple benefits that come with it. “One year after quitting, your risk of heart disease goes down by half.  You’ll increase your chances of living longer. Your senses of smell and taste will improve. Your smoker’s cough will go away,” Dr. Gupta says.

Taking small steps, avoiding social, emotional, and situational triggers, as well as building a strong support system are vital for the process. Those seeking help, may contact 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which was created at the end of 2004. All the consultations are free and confidential.

“Remember, mind, heart and body are connected. One can affect the other two, and the impact can be positive or negative. Improving Life’s Essential 8 is not just good for the heart, it is also good for the individuals’ overall health and well-being,” Dr. Gupta emphasized.

And Vickie knew that. At the time of her diagnosis, Vickie was an avid athlete, and she maintained a cautious and healthy lifestyle. However, there was one factor that she did not consider back then. She was not aware of the fact that she had a family history of heart disease. After her diagnosis, she learned that her grandfather and his three brothers all passed away from heart attacks. She called all her closest family members and urged them to get checked. Vickie’s advice: “Know your body. If you feel that something is wrong, talk to your doctor. Even if it means pushing them a little bit.” Today, 11 years later, Vickie stays active and adheres to her healthy habits.

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