Love Your Heart

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Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center cardiologist and Physician in Chief Rita Ng, MD, (pictured above) offers guidance for preventing heart disease.

Cardiologist Rita Ng, MD, often sees patients after they’ve had a heart attack or bypass surgery, and she said those major life events sometimes lead people to an epiphany.

“They tell me, ‘I wish I had understood earlier that I need to take care and ownership of this body of mine,’” Dr. Ng said.

When it comes to caring of your body, Dr. Ng added that “knowledge is power.” She recently spoke to Look insideKP NCAL, emphasizing knowledge everyone should have about heart disease. Dr. Ng focused on coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.

How do you speak to your patients about preventing coronary artery disease?

The first thing I talk about is knowing your family health history and genetic risk profile. If you have family members who have had heart attacks, bypass surgery, or stents, you likely have a genetic profile that makes you more likely to have problems in this area.

While you can’t control your family history, you can control modifiable risk factors. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your ideal blood pressure, blood sugar (a marker for diabetes), cholesterol, and weight. Everybody has a different baseline weight depending on their genetics and bone structure, but carrying extra weight can be a precursor for hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

I also talk to my patients about the symptoms of coronary artery disease, and I urge them to be proactive in taking care of their own health and the health of their loved ones. We discuss leading a healthy and active lifestyle, with a good diet, regular exercise, stress prevention, and, if they smoke, quitting.

What advice do you offer on diet and exercise?

It’s not about finding the perfect diet or exercise. It’s about making healthy choices that suit you and are sustainable over your lifetime.

Most of your diet should be whole grains, plant-based proteins such as legumes, fruits, and vegetables. A smaller portion should be lean protein such as fish and poultry. Limit your fat and salt, and stay away from packaged, highly processed foods. Cooking at home takes time, but it can be incredibly fun and it’s a good way to control your ingredients and portion size.

When it comes to exercise, you don’t need to strive to run a marathon. Again, you’re looking for healthy changes that will become part of your daily life. Go for a brisk walk for 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 days a week. Get your heart rate up to the point where you could still have a conversation with a walking partner. If you’re just getting started with exercise, start slowly and gradually build your endurance and strength.

The key is to find something you love doing. For some people that might be meeting a friend in the morning for a quick game of tennis. For others it might be a regular yoga class, where they can get the benefit of mindfulness, relaxation, and exercise. Others will find joy by joining a basketball league where they can build community while staying healthy.

Final thoughts?

If you’re struggling with weight, high blood pressure, or any other risk factors — it’s never too late to consult with your physician. He or she can help you develop a plan for diet, exercise, and, when appropriate, the right medications.

The changes you can make in your lifestyle are just as meaningful and powerful as the medications we prescribe. I can’t overstate the importance of making those lifestyle changes to create a healthier and happier future for you and the ones you love.

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