Six ways you can get ahead of heart disease

Heart Health
Feb 23, 2021

Controlling pre-existing conditions, stop smoking, exercise and diet are just a few ways you can lower your risk of developing heart disease

When it comes to the health of our heart, there are factors we can control and others that are out of our hands. For example, family history, age and gender are some risk factors for heart disease that you cannot change.

Yet, there is some good news. Many people can take steps to greatly reduce their chances of developing heart disease by controlling what they can. Among the biggest risks: smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

“It’s a critical organ that you can’t live without, and if it’s not functioning well you may not live well with it,” says Dr. Michael McNeely, primary care physician at St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care at the Islands.

Dr. James McNeely

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. About half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But you don’t have to become a statistic. Let’s take a look at some of the major risk factors for heart disease and how controlling them helps your heart.


If you smoke, stop now. Smokers are up to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers. Smoking accelerates the hardening of the arteries, explains Dr. McNeely.

“Smoking obviously has an effect on the lungs, but it’s also a major determinant of plaque build-up in the blood vessels, whether it’s those in the heart, brain, legs or elsewhere in the body,” Dr. McNeely says. “I tell patients whatever you do, don’t start smoking, or if you are a smoker, stop now, because the risk of vascular disease, heart attack and stroke is multiplied when you smoke.”

Need help quitting? St. Joseph’s/Candler offers a comprehensive smoking cessation program. Learn more here.

Control pre-existing conditions

High blood pressure: Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure happens when the pressure of the blood in your arteries and other blood vessels is too high. If uncontrolled, hypertension can affect your heart and other major organs such as the kidneys and brain.

High blood pressure often has no symptoms so it’s important to regularly see your primary care doctor for checkups, or if you’ve had high blood pressure in the past, you can work with your physician to lower it.

Related Article: Five tips for controlling your blood pressure

High cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver and found in certain foods. When we have more cholesterol than the body can use, it builds up in the walls of the arteries, decreasing blood flow to the heart, brain, kidneys and other parts of the body.

Even a 10 percent reduction in your total cholesterol may lower your risk for heart disease. Your primary care physician can also work with you on lowering high cholesterol.

Related Article: What is cholesterol?

Diabetes: Yes, even diabetes can affect your heart. Diabetes is diagnosed when your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use its own insulin as well as it should or both. About two-thirds of people with diabetes die from cardiovascular disease, not diabetes. That’s because high blood sugar is very damaging to blood vessels. Talk to your doctor about ways to prevent or manage diabetes and control other risk factors.

Related Article: Have diabetes? Then you need to check your blood pressure regularly.

Lose extra weight

Obesity is a major risk factor for not just heart disease, but also diabetes, which we just mentioned has an impact on your heart. When people have more fat, it requires more blood supply in order to nourish the extra fat, Dr. McNeely explains. That in turn increases blood pressure and puts a strain on the heart.

“People who lose weight will have less cardiac demand and less problems overall. Losing weight helps with lowering blood pressure, as well as preventing or controlling diabetes.”


One way to lose weight or keep extra fat off is by following a healthy diet. Avoid or limit red meat, fried foods, highly-processed foods and other foods high in saturated fats, Dr. McNeely recommends. All these foods are known to contribute to obesity and heart disease.

Related Article: Six foods to add, six foods to avoid in a heart-healthy diet


Living a sedentary lifestyle is also something you can change to improve your heart’s health. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Increasing physical activity increases the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and strengthens your heart muscle.

Limit alcohol

Alcohol doesn’t have a direct impact on your heart if you are a moderate drinker. However, too much alcohol can impact other risk factors, including raising blood pressure, increasing the levels of triglycerides and leading to obesity. Women should have no more than one drink a day; while men should have no more than two drinks per day.

“Exercise, following a prudent diet that limits salt, keeping alcohol to a minimum and taking your medicines for pre-existing conditions can impact your heart in a positive way,” Dr. McNeely says. “Your heart is absolutely essential, so let’s take care of it.”

The importance of regularly seeing a primary care doctor

Your primary care doctor is the first point of contact for your medical care. He or she performs all necessary screenings and lab work to help diagnose any conditions or risk factors, such as the ones mentioned above. Seeing your primary care doctor regularly is critical to your health.

“I tell patients that it’s important to start at an earlier age getting into the habit of having your regular checkups,” Dr. McNeely says. “I caution patients to look after themselves or run the risk of being surprised in a way that you don’t want to be surprised. Many of these conditions we’ve discussed tend to come on as you get older, and if you go to the doctor regularly, you have a better chance to stay ahead of that.”

Related Article: Are you seeing a healthcare provider annually?

St. Joseph’s/Candler has more than two dozen primary care physicians that see patients across the region from Savannah to Richmond Hill to Statesboro to Bluffton. Find one right for you by searching here.


Coming Thursday: Start improving your heart’s healthy with a special 12-week guide you can follow

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