Tomorrow is the last day of February…”heart” month…which means I’m getting this in in the nick of time. It’s time to talk about all things heart, and I’m not talking valentines.
Let’s cut to the chase.
- Heart disease is America’s number 1 killer. It’s the leading cause of death with more than 655,000 Americans dying of it each year.
- If you’re counting, that’s one in every four deaths.
- If you’re counting on the clock, one person dies every 36 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease.
- If you’re counting “heart attacks” and not just deaths from heart disease, that number is 805,000…the number of Americans that have a heart attack every year…which also calculates to someone in the U.S. having a heart attack every 40 seconds.
- When it comes to cardiovascular disease, nearly 122 million American adults suffer from it. Some experts put the number at 48 percent of U.S. adults.
And since this country is on such a diversity hamster wheel, it’s important to note that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups. No “privilege” or “systemic” issue here. It hits all of us, costing around $219 billion annually for health care services, medication, and lost productivity.
What’s equally disturbing is that heart disease is almost totally preventable; some experts go so far as to say 80 percent of all heart disease is avoidable. And although not all heart attacks are fatal, even a minor one can cause damage and set you up for a lifetime of medication and long-term risks. We’ve all heard it said that living a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease, but when it comes to our hearts, what exactly does that mean?
The American Heart Association recommends focusing on what they call “Life’s Simple 7,” which are seven goals of eating a healthy diet; exercising regularly; avoiding excess weight; not smoking; and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar within healthy ranges. Others dumb it down even more by saying the three rules of prevention are do more, eat less, and know your numbers. Sounds simple, right?
Number one, eat healthy. Everything you eat or drink matters to your heart so you need to take your diet to heart. This means lots of plant-based foods and a healthy caloric intake. In fact, a plant-based diet has been scientifically proven to reverse heart disease and studies show that within three weeks of converting to one, people experience significant heart health improvements. Sadly, I’m of those who likes a little animal protein on my plate, so I need to take extra precautions and increase healthy food intake high in fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, healthy grains, fish, and low in dairy and red meat. Avoiding fried foods, baked goods, sugary drinks should be no-no’s for everyone. It’s also recommended you toss the salt, and not just over your shoulder for good luck but out of the food you eat. Also, reduce saturated fats from your diet increase flavonoids, which have a long history associated with heart health. Fruits, veggies, and tea are all great sources of these natural dietary compounds, as in wine. Yay wine! Lean protein is also key to heart-healthy eating, especially legumes like beans, peas, and lentils.
Second, exercise regularly, especially if you’re over 30 as the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that a lack of physical activity is the greatest heart-disease risk factor for them. Your heart is small, about the size of your fist, but it is a muscle, and what do you want to do with and for muscles? Exercise them! In short, do something active every day and get up and get moving as regular physical activity is key to keeping your heart healthy and pumping. How much is “regularly?” Most experts suggest working your way up to 150 minutes of moderate-to-high intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent of both each week. If you’re feeling like your head and heart are telling you to lose weight, you might need to increase those numbers just a tad while adjusting your diet. In addition to aerobic activity, it’s also recommended you do regular muscle strengthening and toning activity like weights and yoga. A good rule of thumb that’s easy to remember, at least for me, is that just 20 minutes of brisk walking each day can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30-40 percent.
Those two things will hopefully result in number 3: maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight is a heart disease risk factor that is totally preventable. My sister-in-law, who is in the best shape of anyone I know, has always lived by the mantra “what you put in your body, you need to work off.” Chowed down on something not so healthy? Then get your butt out there and work it off. Recent numbers show nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults and nearly 19 percent of youth are actually obese, which is associated with shorter lifespans and a greater proportion of life lived with cardiovascular disease.
No one likes to talk weight or weight issues, but two areas that need addressing when it comes to heart disease are Body Mass Index and Waist Circumference. I know, so here goes.
BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters. A high BMI increases your heart disease risks. The CDC website has a handy-dandy BMI test that’s worth checking out.
Another method to estimate heart disease risks is waist circumference, which measures abdominal fat, known to place you at a greater risk for everything from heart disease to Type 2 Diabetes. As mentioned above, being overweight is a heart disease risk factor, but it’s especially worrisome if those extra pounds are around your middle. Research shows apple-shaped women are three times as likely to develop cardiovascular disease as their pear-shaped counterparts with fat mostly in their hips and legs. To measure your waist circumference, plate a tape measure horizontally around your middle, just above your hipbones. Keep the tape snug but not too tight and measure your waist as you breathe out. A non-pregnant woman with a waist circumference of more than 35 inches and a man with one more than 40 inches could be at a higher risk of heart disease and other ailments. Time to do those crunches and twists!
Number four is self-explanatory: don’t smoke.
It bears mentioning here what many are calling “the new smoking:” sitting. If you’re prone to spending large amounts of time each day sitting, take a stand. Researchers have learned that a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of death from all causes by 46 percent. Yowzah! So, in addition to adding regular exercise to your day, you also need to simply move more throughout the day even if that means up and down your hallway.
Up next, prevent or treat other health conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, which can collectively and individually lead to heart disease. These are the “numbers you should know.”
Your systolic blood pressure number…the upper one…should be less than 120 and the diastolic number…the lower one…should be less than 80.
High blood pressure, sometimes called the “silent killer” because it often lacks obvious symptoms, is something we all need to keep in check as it a major but modifiable risk factor for heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and kidney failure.. The AHA and American College of Cardiology define high blood pressure as a reading of 130/80. Also known as hypertension, it can lead to heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. If you have high blood pressure, it’s highly recommended you treat it with lifestyle changes and if needed, medication.
Then there’s cholesterol; a fatty substance that naturally occurs in human blood and is formed in the liver or comes from the foods you eat. It aids in tissue and hormone formation, protects your nerves, and helps with digestion. But too much “bad” LDL cholesterol and not enough “good” HDL cholesterol may lead to heart disease and stroke. Too much of it in fact, can cause buildup called plaque, which can cause arteries to harden and narrow…also known as hardening of the arteries…and result in blood clots that can block arteries and lead to heart attack or stroke.
Your cholesterol numbers are a combination of HDL, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. A healthy HDL may protect against heart attack and stroke while the higher the LDL level is, the higher your risk of heart attack. When you get your cholesterol checked, you get a number for “total cholesterol,” and one each for HDL and LDL levels. You never want a high LDL level less than 100, which is considered optimal. And ideal total cholesterol number is considered below 200mg/dL. Anything between 201-239 is borderline high while 240 and higher is considered high.
Appropriate blood sugar…or blood glucose…levels vary throughout the day and from one person to another. They are often lowest before breakfast and before meals and highest after a meal. For most people without diabetes, ideal numbers are considered less than 100 mg/dL before meals and less than 140 mg/dL after a meal.
What’s weird, is that anyone, including children, can develop heart disease. But what exactly is it?
It occurs when a blocked coronary artery cuts off blood flow to the heart, causing a section of the heart muscle to die. While a blood clot is usually to blame for the blockage, the problem starts long before that with the buildup of fatty deposits, known as coronary artery disease. Plaque builds up in your arteries, which causes them to narrow over time and ultimately reducing blood flow to the heart. When I think about this I immediately have visions of my heart pumping when I exercise and those arteries getting clogged when I eat certain foods. It’s a visual I hope to recreate every time I hesitate to work out or when I want to open that bag of chips.
Something a little harder to prevent and that can lead to heart disease is a family history of heart disease. My dad had a heart attack when he was young so this hits home to me. Because heart disease is so common, it’s not unusual to know of a family member who has suffered from it, but it’s still important to note that if you have a parent or sibling with a history of it you are increased risk of developing it yourself. The best advice here is to collect information on any blood relatives with heart disease, including how old they were when first diagnosed, and talk to your doctor. Still, remember that you might not be able to change your family history, but you can change other risk factors by being healthy and aware.
So how do you know if you or someone around you is having a heart attack? Here are some agreed upon signs to be aware of:
- Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or go away and come back. The discomfort can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
- Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint. A person may also break out in a cold sweat.
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, one or both arms, and/or shoulders.
- Shortness of breath, which often comes with the chest discomfort but not always.
- Nausea or vomiting.
As luck would have it for us ladies, women are more likely to have additional symptoms of nausea or vomiting and unusual or unexplained tiredness. In addition, a heart attack can come on without chest pain, especially in women. Yay woman!
If you notice symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately. The sooner you get to an emergency room, the sooner you can get treatment to reduce damage to the heart muscle. The chances of surviving a heart attack are greater the sooner emergency treatment begins.
By adjusting your lifestyle, you can not only improve your overall well-being and health, you can make a huge difference in improving your heart health too. Having a healthy ticker can also mean you have a healthy thinker, as people who stay in good cardiovascular healthy show less mental decline over time according to a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
I’ll end with a positive note and one that makes my heart happy. Would you believe me if I told you just relaxing can bolster your immune system and slash your risk of heart disease? Well, it’s true!
A recent study out of Finland showed that lazing in a sauna for a few minutes 4-7 days a week can increase longevity and lower the odds of cardiac arrest. That, my friends, is music to this spa lover’s ears and heart.
And it seems you can take those Finns at their word, as saunas are a way of life for them. In fact, in a nation of 5.5 million, there are 3.3 saunas, which are as common as TVs. Sign me up! This enclosed use of intense heat…wet or dry…to stimulate perspiration and cleansing, is also popular in Turkish hammams and Native American sweat lodges.
Much of this does indeed make my heart happy and aren’t happy hearts what we all strive for? Think about all this…the eating right, exercising, and being healthy…as a glass that’s a person. Whatever is inside the glass will splash when you shake it. If it is filled with water, then water will spill out. If it is filled with coffee, coffee will spill out. If that glass/person is filled with anger, anger will spill out. If that person if filled with fear, fear will spill out. But, if that person is filled with joy, joy will spill out and a joyful heart will emerge.
Keep that heart of yours joyful, happy, and healthy.