By Anne Widga, University Health Center dietitian
February is American Heart Month, a national awareness campaign for heart disease. Although heart disease and heart attacks likely aren’t at the forefront of your mind as a college student, it’s important to be aware of the risks now so you can take steps to keep your heart healthy as you age.
Believe it or not, your current health behaviors as a college student can either reduce or increase your heart disease risk. According to this study, more than 50 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have at least one risk factor for coronary heart disease, and about 25 percent have plaque buildup in their arteries, which can cause a heart attack.
The first step to lower your risk is to know your numbers (e.g., cholesterol: total, good, bad and triglycerides), blood pressure and weight. Take this brief heart disease quiz and then talk to you primary care provider about ordering a baseline cholesterol screening. This screening is offered as part of the University Health Center’s wellness panel, which if doctor-ordered, is covered at no extra cost for University of Nebraska-Lincoln students who pay student fees (UPFF).
Knowing your family history is critical. If you can, ask your parents and grandparents if they have heart disease so you can know if you have a genetic risk. Be sure to tell your primary provider what you discover.
No matter your risk level, here are a few ways you can prevent heart disease right now:
Eat a Healthy Diet
Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains to increase your fiber intake as fiber plays an important role in cardiovascular disease prevention. Choose poultry and fish over red meat when possible. Eat healthy fats such as nuts and nut butters, avocados and olives, but adjust your caloric consumption accordingly to avoid weight gain.
Limit your intake of added sugars and sweetened beverages such as soda, juice and Gatorade. Limit your salt intake by eating foods in their natural state as often as possible; process foods have added sodium to preserve their shelf life.
If you need help making healthier choices or staying accountable, make an appointment with the University Health Center dietitian. UNL students who have paid student fees can receive their first nutrition counseling session at no extra charge. Call 402-472-5000 to make an appointment.
Be Physically Active Daily
Cardio activity is important, but so is strength training. Both are beneficial to improving your heart health, especially your “good” cholesterol—the HDL. You need at least 2 ½ hours of physical activity weekly.
Don’t be afraid to get creative about ways you exercise. Walk or bike across campus instead of driving. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Grab a friend and head to the Campus Rec Center for a group exercise class or a quick session in the cardio area or weight room. Join an intramural sports team. The possibilities are endless.
Limit Alcohol Intake
Drinking can raise your blood pressure and cause weight gain. If you drink, limit your consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. For further recommendations, see this American Heart Association webpage.
Reduce Your Stress
The American Heart Association reports that stress in young adults predicts middle-age blood pressure risk. If you’re feeling stressed, read our blog on self-compassion for coping tips. Our Counseling and Psychological Services team is here if you need someone to listen. Call 402-472-7450 to make an appointment. Students who pay student fees get their first four counseling sessions per academic year at no additional charge.
For more information on heart disease and American Heart Month, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.