Growing up in North Carolina, I can tell you that nothing is better than mom’s fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits with a cold, refreshing glass of sweet tea. Now that I’m a little older, I realize these foods are not the best for my heart health. I also understand that my parents are growing older too and continue to make these high fat and sugary foods a regular part of their diet. Speaking with them about their choices and daily habits can be intimidating, but I want them to understand that the choices they make every day have a lasting effect on their heart and overall health. So what is important for me to tell them and what is the best way to get the point across?

  1. Share the [Gender] FactsIt’s important for my parents to understand that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. If your mother is like mine, she is a sweet Southern lady who wants to always feed and take care of you, but I need to make sure my parents understand they are both at risk for heart disease. I need to encourage them to be each other’s voice of reason and actively help each other make better decisions about when they need to visit the doctor or when they need to simply do some healthy food shopping together for the week.
  2. Stay BalancedThere are different kinds of heart disease, but the most common involves the building up of plaque in the arteries, a condition known as arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Plaque inhibits blood flow, often resulting in a heart attack or stroke, and occurs when there is excessive amounts of saturated and trans fats in the blood. To reduce the risk of heart disease, I need to tell my parents to increase the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet by eating more fatty fish and nuts and replacing vegetable oil with flaxseed or canola oil. I can also suggest they take at least two fish oil or pure EPA capsules daily.
  3. Take a WalkThe American Heart Association (AHA) suggests at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Thirty minutes a day, five times a week will probably be the easiest for my parents to accomplish.

    A great plan is to map out a 30 minute round trip route around my parents’ neighborhood. They live in a rural area with fewer sidewalks, so I should also think about their favorite places to visit, like the mall or the nearby lake. I should also encourage them to invite their friends for a walk. This can help keep them engaged and make the time walking more enjoyable.

  4. Educate on Cholesterol TestingHigh cholesterol doesn’t make people feel sick, making it important for my parents to be regularly screened. A test for measuring cholesterol is called a standard lipid panel and it measures Total Cholesterol, LDL Cholesterol (LDL-C), HDL Cholesterol (HDL-C), Triglycerides and Non-HDL-C. Below is a quick breakdown I can relay to my parents to help them better understand their test results. I should also encourage them to ask their doctors if they ever have any questions.

    Total Cholesterol: Total measure of LDL-C, HDL-C and Triglycerides.

    LDL-C: Bad cholesterol that can form plaque. Low levels are best.

    HDL-C: Good cholesterol that takes LDL-C away from the arteries. High levels are best.

    Triglycerides: Most common type of fat. Low levels are best.

    Non-HDL-C: Total Cholesterol minus HDL-C. Levels should be about 30 mg/dL higher than LDL-C.

  5. Understand Other Risk Factors and Encourage Communication with Medical ProfessionalsIt’s also important to tell my parents that standard lipid panels do not tell the whole heart health story. Fifty percent of people who have a heart attack have normal LDL-C* – the bad cholesterol. This makes it important for my parents to ask their doctors about ways to more accurately measure their heart health – like checking their inflammation levels. Inflammation is the leading cause of heart disease and is undetected by standard lipid panel screening. My parents should also ask about their chances of developing diabetes, as this contributes greatly to heart health and it’s estimated that about 70% of diabetics die of heart disease and 15% die from stroke.

Understanding the importance of heart health and how to communicate to your loved ones can have a tremendous impact on their quality of life. Even if you’re not able to be with them daily, remember to check in and always encourage healthy habits. Being heart healthy is a way of life and it can take time for some people to adjust, but as long as they are trying, they are doing better than before.

*Sachdeva A, Cannon CP, Deedwania PC, et al: for the Get With The Guidelines Steering Committee and Hospitals. Lipid levels in patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease: an analysis of 136,905 hospitalizations in Get With The Guidelines. Am Heart J. 2009;157(1):111–117.e2.