By: Phaedra McDonough, APRN

You’ve seen the ads. You’ve heard the stories.  Heart disease is the number one killer of men.  Yet 50% of those killed never experienced previous symptoms.  While this statistic is true, your overall lifestyle choices will also play a factor in your risk for a heart attack or stroke – and are often telltale indicators of your increased risk.  Let’s take a quick quiz to assess and review your current risk and discuss ways to make a positive change.

  1. What do I eat?

Your diet is one of the most influential factors in your heart health – and luckily, the most changeable! Is your diet high in sodium? While we all relish a snack of salty pretzels or chips, our sodium intake can skyrocket with just a few handfuls of these foods.  Consuming large amounts of sodium significantly increases your risk for hypertension – the major risk factor for heart attacks. By decreasing your sodium intake by just one gram, you could lower your chances of developing hypertension by over 50%.

  1. What are my drinking habits?

Drinking too much alcohol can wreak serious havoc on your body, especially your heart. Not only can it contribute to a higher count of triglycerides (fats in your blood) and an increased calorie intake, it also produces irregular heartbeats and a steep rise in blood pressure.  The key is moderation – for men, one to two drinks per day is the recommended limit.  Overall, alcohol will not have an adverse effect if consumed conservatively.  In fact, studies have linked red wine to healthier hearts.  However, it’s not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or that drinkers increase the amount they consume.

  1. What’s my stress level?

Are you anxious or worried? Depressed? Overwhelmed by work or personal responsibilities? Studies have shown that your emotional well-being could be linked to heart health.  Stress can and will take physical toll on your body.  Under pressure, your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that causes your blood pressure to rise and your heart rate to increase.  Learn to manage your stress through relaxation or other stress management techniques.  If you feel you suffer from anxiety, discuss your concerns with your health provider to develop a stress management plan.

  1. Am I a smoker?

Do you smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco? Your consumption of the chemicals in tobacco cause great harm to your arteries, damaging the structure of your heart and the function of your blood cells.  If you are a smoker, your blood is more likely to clot, increasing your risk for a stroke or heart attack. Quitting smoking is always easier said than done – however, it is one of the most critical risk factors for your heart health.  Your health provider can provide advice on quitting, including information on support groups, replacement products, or medications.

  1. Am I overweight?

Are you overweight or obese? Your waistline has a direct impact on your heart health. Linked to hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes, obesity significantly increases your risk for a heart attack or stroke.  A decrease in your body weight will considerably reduce your chances of developing these symptoms.  Talk with your health provider about weight management options.

  1. Am I physically active?

Winter may be the toughest season to get motivated and move, but physical activity is imperative for a healthy heart.  Studies have shown that by engaging in just 150 minutes of exercise a week (that’s only about 20 minutes a day!), you can decrease your risk for heart disease by over 30%.  Even if you have other preexisting conditions, your physical activity may lower your overall risk.  Additionally, being active can reduce your chances of developing diabetes.  Start small – walking can be an effective way to begin an exercise regime.  Talk with your health provider about developing a plan to improve your physical activity.

  1. Am I diabetic?

The statistic is sobering: almost 75% of men diagnosed with diabetes die from some form of blood vessel or heart disease.  If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, monitor your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure carefully. Changes in these numbers are often the first indicators of heart problems.  As a diabetic, make sure to stay on track with your medications, maintain a healthy diet, and exercise regularly.

  1. Uncontrollable Characteristics

While many of the risk factors for heart disease are changeable, you may be more vulnerable because of certain demographics.  Your gender: as a male, you are predisposed to have a higher risk for heart disease.  Your age: are you over 50? Each birthday, your risk for cardiovascular issues increases.  Your ethnicity: as a Caucasian, black, or Native American men, you have a higher risk for heart disease.  Genetics: take a look at your family history, if a family member suffered from heart disease, your likelihood for developing heart health issues increases.

While demographics are unchangeable, being educated and understanding your predisposed risk will allow you to make healthy lifestyle choices.  Part of a healthy lifestyle is understanding your numbers – what does your cholesterol level mean? What about blood pressure? Next week, we’ll discuss just that.


Phaedra McDonough, NP is a certified Nurse Practitioner with The Center for Cardiovascular Health at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Located at 17 Belmont Avenue, the Center provides a single point of service for patients in need of care during early or advanced stages of heart and vascular disease.  Ms. McDonough can be reached at (802) 275-3699.  To learn more about the Center, visit