Blogger: 8 totally do-able ways to care for your heart

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

images of hearts in handsMany of us have an area of our body we would like to see in better shape. For some it may be the upper body. For others the lower body or mid-section gets more focus. Because we see these areas all the time, we are constantly aware of the shape they are in. 

Let's talk about the most important muscle for us to keep in good shape. We can't see this one (not without fancy medical equipment, anyway), so we sometimes forget about it. However, this muscle directly affects all other muscles. It's the heart muscle.

Heart Month

It's February, which means it's Heart Month! We not only celebrate the emotional heart this month, on Valentine's Day, but also the physical heart throughout the month of February, through efforts of the American Heart Association (AHA) and other organizations to increase awareness about cardiovascular health. 

Both "hearts" are important for good health. I'll be writing about the role our emotional heart plays in health and healing in a later post. In this post, the focus is on that awesome organ that is our physical heart.

Fascinating Facts 

Those of us who work in medicine each have a "soft spot in our hearts" (pun intended) for organs that we find particularly interesting. The heart definitely falls into that category for me. (No offense, kidneys, liver, and lungs - I love you, too!) 

Some facts about the heart that I find fascinating: 

  • The heart is one hard-working little organ! It works and works, constantly pumping, never taking a break. Normal adult heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute. Using an average of 80 beats per minute, the heart beats about 4,800 times per hour, 115,200 times per day, and 42,048,000 times over the course of a year. 
  • The heart conducts electrical impulses to initiate heart beats. In fact, we sometimes treat it with electricity. How cool is that?!
  • The heart is a nurturing organ, responsible for delivering life-sustaining blood (about 2,000 gallons of freshly oxygenated blood daily) to all other organs. It does this through a system of blood vessels that's over 60,000 miles long! 

Given everything our heart does for us, it's important we take care of this mighty, nurturing, amazing little organ!

The Bad News

EKG readingUnfortunately, many things associated with modern life (such as convenience food, inactivity and high stress) are not so good for our hearts. According to the CDC, cardiovascular disease:

  • Is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. (for both men and women).
  • Claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined.
  • Costs the U.S. over $207 billion each year (taking into account the cost of healthcare services, medications, and lost productivity) ... not to mention the emotional toll of those affected.

The Good News

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to prevent or slow the progression of cardiovascular disease. These include: 

1. Stay physically active. People who are physically active have a much lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Talk with your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise regimen. Depending on your health history, your doctor might want you to do a stress test. If you develop any concerning symptoms while exercising (see No. 8), stop immediately and seek medical attention.

2. Eat a healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet is composed of nutritious whole foods. It is rich in fiber, including plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. It limits sodium, unhealthy fats, excess sugar and excess calories. 

3. Don't smoke. If you are smoking, it's so important to quit. According to the AHA, smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the U.S.

4. Keep blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose controlled. Hypertension (elevated blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (elevated cholesterol), and diabetes (elevated blood glucose) are big risk factors for cardiovascular disease. See your healthcare provider on a regular basis to monitor for these conditions. Lifestyle changes and medications can help to keep these controlled. 

5. Refrain from excessive alcohol. The AHA recommends that if you drink alcohol, you should do so in moderation. This means no more than one or two drinks for men daily and no more than one drink for women daily. Although some studies have shown an association between red wine and reduced mortality from heart disease, it is not clear the red wine was the cause. If you do not drink alcohol, the AHA recommends that you do not start. Excessive alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy (disease of heart muscle) and abnormal heart rhythm. 

6. Minimize stress. Stress causes your body to be in "high gear," also known as fight or flight response. Adrenaline, cortisol and glucose levels rise. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase. Chronic stress can contribute to many health problems. The AHA recommends stress management for improved health. 

7. Maintain connection and community. Several studies have shown that having a strong sense of connection and community (as opposed to being socially isolated) appears to have a protective effect on heart health, as well as overall health. In his well-known book Love and Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish, MD, takes a look at several research studies. 

8. Listen to your body. If you develop chest/arm/jaw pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, palpitations, nausea/vomiting, profuse sweating or other concerning symptoms, pay attention. These symptoms should not be ignored. Seek medical attention right away, as these could be warning signs of a serious problem. 

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post—along with helpful links to other resources—originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.