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Heart Health: What You Need to Know

“Listen to your heart” is a popular adage, but often people may spend so much time thinking about their figurative hearts that they may forget about their literal hearts. Your heart is one of the most important organs in your body, and neglecting its care can lead to serious consequences.

Heart Health: Why It Matters for You

Even if you think your heart is in great shape, you shouldn’t take that assumption for granted. The Centers for Disease Control provide some eye-opening facts about heart disease:

  • Every year, heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the U.S. That equates to roughly one out of four deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both genders. However, more men die from heart disease than women.
  • Every year, nearly three-quarters of a million people suffer heart attacks in the U.S. More than 200,000 of those heart attacks happen to someone who has already had one.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease; it is responsible for more than half of the annual heart disease deaths.

Despite the statistics about heart disease, you may assume that you are not at risk because of your age or because you spend five hours at the gym every week. However, heart health should still be a matter of concern for you.

It isn’t uncommon for younger people to suffer from heart disease. An article from Everyday Health cited a doctor who claims that more women in their early 20s die from heart disease than from breast cancer. Heart disease can also affect men at any age.

Heart health is a matter of life and death, but it goes beyond that. By adopting habits that are good for your heart, you can improve your overall quality of life — you’ll please both your figurative heart and your literal heart!

Know the Risk Factors for Heart Disease

From time to time, it is helpful to take an overall health assessment. One way to get a rough estimate of how your heart is doing is by taking a heart age test that measures your risk factors. You and your doctor should also work together to identify any risk factors you have for heart disease. These risk factors include:

  • Being male.
  • Being elderly.
  • Having a family history of heart disease.
  • Being post-menopausal.
  • Being African-American, American Indian, or Mexican American.

You’ll notice these factors are elements you have no control over. There are other risk factors, however, that you do have control over:

  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • A sedentary lifestyle.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes.
  • High levels of stress and anger.
  • Unfavorable cholesterol numbers.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High levels of C-reactive protein.

How to Strive for a Healthier Heart

By taking the following steps, you can lend your heart a helping hand and maybe even extend your life.

Quit Smoking

Smoking can double your risk of having a heart attack. Even secondhand smoke can pose a danger to your heart health. According to the Texas Heart Institute, research shows elevated heart rates and tightening of major arteries among smokers, who also carry the potential for an irregular heart rhythm. These factors can all cause your heart to work harder. Smoking also raises blood pressure, which carries a higher risk of stroke.

It is easy to talk for days about all the benefits of quitting smoking, but actually stepping away from those cigarettes is often much easier said than done. Here are a few tips to get you started on your journey to quit smoking:

  • Set a quit date. This could be an important anniversary, or it could simply be a day you pick from the calendar. Give yourself time to mentally prepare to quit.
  • Write out a “quit card.” This should be something small that you can fit in your wallet and pull out whenever you’re tempted to have a cigarette. Make sure it contains all your most important reasons for wanting to quit.
  • Know when you’re most tempted to smoke, and try to avoid or modify those situations.
  • Tell your family and friends that you plan on quitting. They’ll hold you accountable.
  • Talk to your doctor for additional help and advice. He or she may recommend a gum, patch, or prescription medication that can make it easier to say no to cigarettes and other tobacco products.
  • If you try to quit and don’t succeed right away, remember that true failure only comes when you give up.

Be Active

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to take care of your body. Physical activity can:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Strengthen your heart.
  • Help control insulin levels.
  • Release endorphins that help you deal with stress.
  • Reduce C-reactive protein levels.

You don’t have to kill yourself at the gym to reap the heart benefits of physical exercise. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. That averages out to about 30 minutes five days a week. You can also shoot for 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week.

If jumping into an exercise routine seems overwhelming, you can start slowly by adding more activity into your normal activities. For example, you can park a block away from your destination when you’re going shopping, or you can make it a point to stand up and walk in place for a few minutes every hour while you’re at work. Always keep in mind that a little bit of physical activity is better than none.

If you’re feeling up to it, you should add some muscle-strengthening exercises into your routine a couple times a week.

Relax

Stress and anger can increase your risk of high blood pressure and other heart-related problems. Managing stress is a challenge, but you can do so by:

  • Making sure you get enough sleep.
  • Scheduling time to spend with family and friends.
  • Saying no to projects or engagements that you know will raise your stress level.
  • Meditating.
  • Keeping your living space organized and peaceful.

Adjust Your Diet

“Diet” sounds like a dirty word to some people, but there are some yummy foods that are good for your heart. Examples include:

  • Salmon. 
  • Oatmeal.
  • Blueberries and other vividly colored fruits and veggies.
  • Dark chocolate.
  • Potatoes.
  • Nuts, including almonds, walnuts, and pistachios.

Your doctor can give you more advice about which foods to eat and which foods to avoid for heart health. However, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that you should look for foods that are high in soluble fiber, antioxidants, whole grains, and unsaturated fats.

Conversely, you should stay away from foods that are high in saturated fat, refined sugar, and cholesterol.

Take Heart Healthy Supplements

You may not always have time to eat right, and you might want a little extra assistance to keep your heart in good shape. The right supplements can do wonders for your ticker.

  • Resveratrol. This is a polyphenol that is present in red grape skins, red wine, and peanuts. It may be able to reduce inflammation and prevent blood platelets from sticking together, thereby reducing the risk of a heart attack. Resveratrol comes with other potential health benefits as well. For example, it may be able to boost immune system function and fight the signs of aging.
  • Fish oil. Fish oil is one of the healthiest supplements you can take. The omega-3 fatty acids in the oil can help to reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure. Fish oil may be able to reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
  • Aspirin. Aspirin thins the blood, making it easier for blood to flow through your arteries and veins. It may be particularly helpful for men who are at risk of heart problems. You should talk to your doctor before you begin taking aspirin as a supplement.
  • Vitamin D. A vitamin D deficiency can contribute to increased cardiovascular problems. Your doctor can test your blood to determine your vitamin D levels. Take D as a supplement and try to increase the time you spend outdoors; sunlight encourages your body to produce this essential nutrient.

Control Your Diabetes

Many of the above-mentioned activities will help you get a handle on your diabetes, but there is more you can do to control this condition and thereby improve your heart health.

  • Learn how different foods interact with each other to impact your blood sugar levels.
  • Be diligent about monitoring your blood sugar.
  • Have a regular eating schedule. Avoid skipping meals; this can cause dangerous dips and spikes in your blood glucose levels.
  • Don’t completely cut out carbohydrates. Carbs that digest slowly can boost your energy and provide you with essential nutrients.
  • Drink green tea. Research suggests that it may be useful in improving insulin sensitivity.
  • Keep a healthy snack with you at all times.

A Healthier Heart Isn’t Far Away

Taking control of your heart health may seem like a daunting challenge, but you can take small steps that move you toward your greater goal — a healthy life powered by a strong heart. By educating yourself about heart health, adopting good diet and exercise habits, and taking beneficial supplements, you can make sure your literal heart and your figurative heart are both in good condition.