Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP
Obviously, your heart is important, but most people don’t stop to think about just how hard it works. Every day, your faithful heart beats 100,000 times, and during an average lifetime, it will reach 3 billion beats. Like clockwork, it’s the engine that keeps you going, but when something goes wrong, it can be catastrophic.
Cardiovascular disease claims more than 830,000 lives each year, accounting for one out of every three deaths in the U.S. Every 38 seconds, someone dies from cardiovascular disease, and today, 92 million people are living with some form of it. While many people think of heart trouble as something that affects older people, it can affect you at any age, and often the younger victims are the most unsuspecting.
Cardiovascular disease is a catchall term that refers to anything wrong with the heart muscle itself, the valves that help blood flow, the rhythm or the blood vessels that transport blood. Diseases of the heart can be caused by all sorts of things—age and genetics are big indicators, but so are your lifestyle and unforeseen problems like infections. How you live every day influences how your heart will function over the long haul, and too often people take their healthy heart function for granted.
There are plenty of risk factors that impact your heart health, but habits that cause a spike in any of the big three health indicators—blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar—are the most dangerous. The good news is heart health isn’t strictly genetic, and most risk factors are very much within your control. Regular visits with your health care provider can help you monitor your heart health. In addition, doing these five things has shown to reduce your risk of heart attack or dying from heart disease by nearly 85 percent, so take these tips to heart.
- Get active. The heart needs exercise, just like the rest of your muscles, and the more you work it out, the stronger and healthier it becomes. Exercise makes arteries and blood vessels more flexible, improves blood pressure and increases the amount of good cholesterol (while decreasing the bad). Inactivity does the opposite, causing the heart muscle to atrophy and reduce blood flow. More than 250,000 deaths each year are attributed to inactivity alone, so get moving to build your heart strength.
- Lose excess weight. Roughly one in three Americans is obese, which increases the risk of heart disease by as much as 85 percent. Because high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are all tied to obesity, weight is a natural precursor to heart trouble, so aim to keep your body mass index below 30, and ideally below 25. If you’re above a healthy weight, losing as little as 3 percent of your weight can significantly reduce your risk factors for heart disease.
- Eat better. Eating right is one of your best defenses against heart disease, largely because what you eat directly influences other risk factors like obesity and—you guessed it—high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Choosing a heart-healthy diet that includes fish, lean meats, low-fat dairy, fruits and veggies will help ward off cardiovascular trouble, especially when you pair a healthy diet with regular exercise.
- Drink in moderation. Drinking in moderation (read: two drinks a day for men and one drink for women) is OK, but anything more can affect your heart health. In addition to spikes in caloric intake, excess drinking can increase the triglycerides (fats) in your blood and cause high blood pressure, not to mention a stroke or sudden cardiac death.
- Steer clear of tobacco. Smoking causes one in three cardiovascular deaths because it can lead to heart damage. Smoking increases triglycerides, lowers your good cholesterol, increases plaque buildup, narrows blood vessels and generally makes blood stickier and more difficult to clot. Secondhand smoke is also deadly, claiming 34,000 lives each year, so steer clear of all smoke to protect your heart, not to mention your lungs.
If February has you seeing hearts, don’t forget your own. Two-thirds of all cardiovascular events have been linked to smoking, extra weight, a poor diet and too much alcohol consumption. If you’re looking for ways to protect your heart, start with these five tips. Your heart will thank you, and so will the people who love you most.