Learning that you have heart disease can be discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating.

Dr. Sandy Charles
Dr. Sandy Charles

“Think of it as a new beginning,” said Dr. Sandy Charles, a cardiologist at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte. “It's frequently a positive thing that it's been diagnosed, and dangerous complications haven't occurred or have been treated. At the very least, it is a massive wake-up call that you can't take your health for granted.”

Heart disease refers to several different heart conditions, but the most common is coronary artery disease, which can cause a heart attack. Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque builds up in your arteries. Over time, those arteries can narrow, which reduces blood flow to your heart and puts you at danger for heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. About 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.

Making helpful changes

Charles said the first thing she tells a patient who has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease is “you’re not alone.”

“Don’t be discouraged,” she said. “Feel engaged with your physician and your medical care, and empowered that what you can do will make a difference.”

For many people with coronary heart disease, the treatment is two-pronged – prescribed medicine that can lower your risk of additional plaque buildup and adopting healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Medicine. A range of medications can be prescribed, including some that modify cholesterol levels (such as statins), aspirin and beta blockers.
  • Diet. Concentrate primarily on eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Combine that with fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils.

“Minimize the amount of sugar and processed foods you eat,” Charles said. “Cut back on the sugary drinks and fast foods.”

It’s helpful to follow either the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet, which was originally designed to help people control their blood pressure (Note: DASH stands for ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension’).

Find the heart care you need.

Learn more

  • Exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five times per week, for a total of 150 minutes. Or, at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three times per week, for a total of 75 minutes. “The No. 1 thing I tell my patients is that if they're feeling well, exercise, exercise, exercise,” Charles said.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation - up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

Taking advantage of a second chance

For some people, the first sign of heart disease is sudden death. But for many, their coronary heart disease is discovered early enough that they can modify their lifestyle to limit further heart damage.

The first step? See your doctor for regular check-ups. If a medical issue needs attention, catching it in the early stages is beneficial.

“Heart disease kills more people than all forms of cancer combined,” Charles said. “Yet, 80% of heart disease is preventable, simply based on risk-factor modification. Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes are things that people tend to not feel or know they even have, unless they're getting screened regularly.”

Coronary heart disease can be managed with a combination of lifestyle changes and medications. With the correct treatment, symptoms can be reduced and your heart function will improve.

“I always tell patients to be positive, engaged, empowered, and to partner with their doctor,” Charles said. “Fully commit to this journey.”