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Small changes, big results: Healthy lifestyle choices can make a difference for heart health

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, director of the Institute for Health System Innovation & Policy at Boston University, provides insight on the importance of heart health. From 2010 to 2016, Woodson served as the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. He is also a brigadier general in the United States Army Reserve. (Photo courtesy of Boston University) Dr. Jonathan Woodson, director of the Institute for Health System Innovation & Policy at Boston University, provides insight on the importance of heart health. From 2010 to 2016, Woodson served as the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. He is also a brigadier general in the United States Army Reserve. (Photo courtesy of Boston University)

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Throughout my career as a vascular surgeon, I’ve seen patients impacted by heart health issues in big and small ways. I’ve seen the young, old, and everyone in between make changes in hopes of reducing their risk of heart disease. And I’ve seen the consequences for those who live with this illness, including heart attack or stroke, disability, and lower quality of life.

Cardiovascular disease – the number one killer of Americans every year – is an umbrella term that includes a range of conditions affecting the body’s powerhouse organ. Coronary heart disease, which affects the blood flow to the heart, is the most common form of heart disease and kills more than 370,000 Americans annually. On average, a heart attack strikes every 40 seconds and a heart disease-related event kills a person every 60 seconds in the United States.

One of the biggest indicators of risk is family history, but there are many factors that can be managed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all Americans have at least one of three key risk factors: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking. While heart disease is often regarded as an adult disease, the root causes can be linked to habits picked up during childhood, such as eating a poor diet and being inactive. The CDC says that obesity affects 1 out of every 6 children in the U.S. The rate of childhood obesity has increased over the last few decades, and heart disease risk factors, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, have also increased.

But there’s good news: These risk factors can be avoided. The choice to lead a healthy and active lifestyle starts with a personal decision to do better for ourselves. Eating healthy and being physically active every day can have a ripple effect in our homes and communities as well. By encouraging family and friends – especially children – we can lay the foundation for a healthy community.

Small changes in our routine, such as walking more, snacking less, or finding ways to de-stress, can make a significant difference in our long-term heart health. But making healthy choices and incorporating lifestyle changes take persistence and dedication. The earlier we make them part of our routine, the better off we can be as we age.

As technology advances, more tools become available to help manage risks for heart disease. From smart watches to phone applications, technology can now track exercise, sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure while tracking your goals and providing feedback. Technology can be a great resource for accountability and motivation while working toward health-related goals.

In the Military Health System, we have a responsibility for keeping service members and their families healthy and empowering them with tools to prevent heart disease. We need a healthy and fit force to protect the nation, and it’s on us to ensure that our service members are equipped with the knowledge to prevent this illness.

Bringing awareness to cardiovascular disease and its risk to the military community is a year-long effort. It’s not too late to take command of your health, set new goals, and make healthy lifestyle changes. Do it for yourself and for your loved ones – your heart will thank you for it.


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