SUNDAY, Jan. 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, taking more than 500,000 lives every year.
The statistics are especially frustrating to doctors because many heart disease deaths could be averted if people took better care of themselves and practiced healthier habits.
"You can't pick your parents," says Dr. Robert Eckel, chairman of the American Heart Association's Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, referring to the fact that genetics do play a role in heart disease. And, he adds, you can't alter your age, another risk factor.
However, there are lots of unhealthy habits that Americans can change if they want to cut their risk of heart disease, Eckel and others agree. "I would say a majority of heart disease is lifestyle-related," he says.
In a review of three large studies, including more than 400,00 men and women, that was published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found the majority of heart disease patients had a least one lifestyle-related risk factor. They included high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes and cigarette smoking.
That underscores the need to pay attention to the way you live your life, Eckel and others say.
To prevent heart disease or minimize the risk of getting it, Eckel suggests a healthy diet, daily physical activity -- or activity at least most days of the week. He also recommends maintaining a healthy body weight, healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
And stop smoking, says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, chief of Women's Cardiac Care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Smoking raises bad cholesterol," she says, and boosts the risk of heart disease. So even if it takes an intensive program or approach, including nicotine patches and a support group, it's crucial to quit, she says.
A healthy diet is crucial, too. "I suggest not using the word diet, but more of an eating plan for your life," Goldberg says.
American Heart Association guidelines call for five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day; six or more servings of whole grains; and eating fish containing heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids once or twice a week.
"Omega 3 fatty acids are found in salmon, tuna, swordfish, sardines and herring," Goldberg says.
"Flaxseed oil also has omega-3 fatty acids," she says, if you can't or won't eat fish.
Adds Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, "We recommend fatty fish for primary prevention of heart disease." Two fish servings a week is ideal, she says.
For those who already have heart disease and can't or won't eat fish, the heart association recommends taking omega 3 supplements once or twice a day. The supplements aren't recommended for healthy people, Eckel says. And even those with heart disease should check with their doctor first about taking the supplements.
People should also work with their physician on a regular basis to maintain markers of heart health, Eckel says. That means keeping an eye on blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels and, if they get into an unhealthy range, working to correct the problem -- first through diet and exercise and, if necessary, medication.