Lifestyle and Cardiovascular Health Introduction

The variables of daily living and the effects they have on the health of the heart and blood vessels.

Health experts estimate that lifestyle modifications alone could eliminate 90 percent or more of acquired cardiovascular disease (cvd).

Given that 60 million Americans currently have at least one form of cardiovascular disease, the potential impact of such a reduction on life expectancy as well as quality of life is overwhelming. The three lifestyle factors that most significantly influence cardiovascular health are cigarette smoking, dietary habits, and physical activity.

Cigarette Smoking

Nicotine, the active ingredient in cigarette smoke, is a potent vasoconstrictor and cardiovascular stimulant. Before a smoker finishes the first inhalation from a cigarette, nicotine is already surging through the bloodstream. It causes blood vessels throughout the body to stiffen and narrow, raising blood pressure.

It raises the heart rate, further increasing blood pressure as well as the heart’s workload. Simultaneously, other substances in cigarette smoke interfere with the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange in the lungs, reducing the amount of oxygen the blood carries into the blood circulation.

As smoking continues over time, nicotine causes physical changes in the cells of the artery walls, reducing their ability to contract and relax.

Blood pressure elevation may become permanent (hypertension), and the arteries are more susceptible to atherosclerotic plaque. With smoking cessation much of the arterial function returns. Hypertension may improve though atherosclerosis, including coronary artery disease (cad) and peripheral vascular disease (pvd), remains.

Dietary Habits

The foods and the quantities of them that a person eats significantly influence blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products provides a rich source of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that help regulate these lipids.

This is important because elevated blood lipids (hyperlipidemia) form the basis of atherosclerosis and the conditions that result, notably hypertension, CAD, and PVD. These nutrients also help the body tissues, including those of the cardiovascular system, to function efficiently.

Nutritious eating further helps regulate the body’s glucose-insulin balance, important from a cardiovascular perspective because insulin plays a key role in the kinds and amounts of cholesterol and lipoproteins the liver manufactures. Insulin is also a key player in type 2 diabetes, which is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Eating too much of any kind of food, however, results in increased body weight. Obesity is another risk factor for numerous forms of CVD, notably hypertension and atherosclerosis.

For many people a weight loss of 10 pounds can decrease systolic blood pressure by 10 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) and lower cholesterol blood levels by 5 to 10 percent.

Physical Exercise

Daily physical activity is emerging as perhaps the single-most important lifestyle factor in regard to cardiovascular health and perhaps health overall. Exercise affects cellular metabolism in numerous ways.

Cardiovascularly, exercise improves the efficiency with which cells use oxygen, lowering demand on the heart.

Aerobic exercise increases lung capacity, putting more oxygen into the blood with each breath. Exercise also increases insulin sensitivity, improving cholesterol ratios as well as glucose efficiency.

Walking aids the lower extremities in moving blood back to the heart, with the skeletal muscles massaging and supporting the veins that must work against gravity to accomplish this task.

Lifestyle Modifications

Health experts agree that while the greatest cardiovascular benefits come from lifelong lifestyle habits that support cardiovascular health, it is never too late to make changes that improve cardiovascular status.

Even when cardiovascular disease exists, doing lifestyle modifications such as nutritious eating habits, daily physical exercise, weight loss and weight management, and smoking cessation can mitigate symptoms and allow a more acceptable quality of life.

See also CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE PREVENTION; DIET AND CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH; DIET AND HEALTH; EXERCISE AND HEALTH; HEALTH RISK FACTORS; HEALTHY PEOPLE 2010PHYSICAL EXERCISE AND CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTHSMOKING AND CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE.

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