People of all ages should be mindful of their heart health and it's never too early to start good practices, according to medical experts at the Carolina Heart and Vascular Center.

"You should start right from the get-go," said Dr. Idris Sharaf, a cardiologist at the center in Aiken, "because younger people they’ll start smoking, and they’ll say, 'Well, I’m young.' Nowadays people are starting to live until their 80s and 90s."

Dr. Idris Sharaf

Dr. Idris Sharaf

"You’re living into the 80s and 90s, but how are you going to be at the age?," he questioned, later saying "everyone has their own choice … but you want to live as long as you can without disability."

"That's the most important thing, but you have to start young. It's like your retirement fund. You better start right from the get-go, not when you're 65 and say, 'Let's start now.'"

That includes eating healthy, being active and avoiding smoking, according to the doctor.

Sharaf recommends saying no to processed food, although he says he is aware that can be difficult and more costly for some people.

"It’s not an easy thing to say and do, but it would be better," he said. "Also, smaller and more frequent meals and not food late in the evening."

The cardiologist suggests eating before 6 p.m. and drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

As far as exercise, the best thing a person can do is walk at least 30 to 60 minutes a day, he said. If people cannot get outside, indoor machines like the treadmill can be used as alternatives.

Aerobic and water exercise are also among his recommendations.

Those who live in rural areas that may not be close to facilities with exercise equipment can form walking groups in outdoor areas like parks or school athletic fields, Sharaf said.

Stacy Leita, practice administrator at Carolina Heart and Vascular Center, agrees.

"For older people, too, it’s the social aspect of the group exercise," Leita said, "so they look forward to going out and seeing friends so it encourages them to actually go."

The American Heart Association recommends at least four more ways to keep your heart healthy: control cholesterol, manage blood pressure, lose weight (the AHA says online "calculating your BMI, or body mass index, helps determine if you should lose weight") and reduce blood sugar.

Heart health and risk factors

The heart ages with you, Sharaf said, and even if a person is living healthy, the heart may build up some plaque over time.

But, "a healthy heart is a heart that is appropriate for the time that you’re alive meaning it doesn’t cause any issues, in a sense," he said.

Some risk factors of heart disease include smoking, diabetes, cholesterol and sometimes "family issues also play a role," Sharaf added.

Heart health should be a priority for both men and women, according to the medical professional. Women can present atypical symptoms such as jaw or throat pain.

But no matter the gender, if anything feels unusual, a person should see their physician.

"Let’s say you’re getting more short of breath than usual doing the same activity that you did before, and it’s progressively getting worse," Sharaf noted. "You don’t have to have just pain, (but you're) short of breath, more fatigue."

'Take care of yourself'

A stress test is the best and cheapest test tool to monitor the heart, according to the doctor, because "it gives you so much information." It is usually conducted if something is indicated.

"It tells us how much you can walk, what your exercise endurance (is), if you have any arrhythmias, (and) your blood pressure response," he said, "so ... it gives you so much information at a nominal cost."

But it is important to remember tests are based on statistics, he said. Medical publications note the test, which is performed using a treadmill, cannot necessarily predict a heart attack but may identify risk factors.

The larger takeaway is to "take care of yourself and be healthy," and that involves taking ownership of your own health, Sharaf believes.

"As long as people don't ignore the risk factors and take care of themselves and exercise on a regular basis, that's the best thing they can do," he said.

Aiken Regional Medical Centers participates with the American Heart Association during the months of January and February to spread awareness about and for the association.

The hospital will be participating in the upcoming CSRA Heart Walk on March 10 at the North Augusta Greeneway.

Christina Cleveland is the features writer at the Aiken Standard.

Christina Cleveland is a reporter with the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since October 2015. A native of Seneca, South Carolina, she holds a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.