Did you know that February is American Heart Month? The color red, heart shapes everywhere, and Valentine’s Day make February a good month to focus on educating the public about heart disease. It’s especially important for women, since a common misconception is that men are the ones who have heart attacks and cardiovascular disease (CVD), not women. But heart disease is the leading cause of death for both genders.
Another misconception is that only older people have heart disease. Not true! Heart disease is the third leading cause of death for women aged 25-44 years. For women aged 45-64 years, it becomes the second leading cause. National increases in obesity, diabetes, stress of daily life, and sedentary jobs play a huge part in these facts. Another cause is smoking and even second-hand smoke. Over the past 10 years the rate of smoking among men has actually gone down, but it has increased for women.
How about making ‘Healthy Heart’ resolutions this month, just like New Year’s resolutions? Here are some suggestions:
First, stop smoking if you smoke! If you don’t smoke but someone near you does, do whatever you can to protect yourself from their smoking. Nicotine in the blood damages the walls of the arteries and veins, making them weaker. The cells can also become inflamed and swollen, narrowing the artery and making blockage caused by fatty plaques and clots more likely. Nicotine affects platelets, making them stickier so that they clump together, and increases the blood level of fibrinogen, another clotting agent. Finally, smoking adversely affects cholesterol levels, especially LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and decreases the availability of oxygen in the blood. All of these effects combine so that smokers (or those who inhale a lot of second-hand smoke) are more likely to have heart disease.
Second, resolve increase your daily activity level. Note that I didn’t say ‘exercise.’ It’s true that aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging is the best way to keep your cardiovascular system in shape, but just moving around more in your daily life will help too. Short (5-10 min.) periods of activity throughout the day add up. One of the easiest ways for me to incorporate more physical activity into my life is to make use of the time I spend watching television. I enjoy the TV programs I watch; some are educational while others make me laugh and relax. But while my mind is busy I can keep my body busy also.
The first thing I do is hide my remote control! It’s just a trick to get myself up to change channels or volume. During commercials (which I don’t like watching anyway) I do a mini-workout. Walking in place or back and forth across the room, I raise and lower my arms, reach out and circle them, bend and stretch. Before I know it the show is back on! An average one-hour program has almost 20 minutes of commercials. If you watch 3 hours of TV a night with active commercial breaks, you will have added close to an hour of physical activity to your day almost effortlessly.
Third, take a good look at your eating habits. If your doctor asked you to keep a record of everything you eat, would you make drastic changes in your diet, or even fudge on the records? If you’re not sure whether your diet is heart-healthy, here are some quick tips from the American Heart Association: less salt, less fat, less sugar, less cholesterol, and less refined – but much more taste! When you remove all that extra stuff, it’s a shock. Not to worry, because soon you will realize you are tasting real food again. Plus, there are many other spices and seasonings available – just make sure they are low-sodium!
Finally, resolve to enjoy life more. Medical researchers are learning more about the strength of the connection between the mind and the body – something known to Eastern medicine for thousands of years. Getting enough sleep is essential to the health of both your mind and your body. Positive attitude, laughter, relaxation, and prayer or meditation are all techniques that affect the body through the mind. They can decrease your blood pressure, relieve inflammation throughout the body, and possibly even lower cholesterol. Be sure to take advantage of them – they are free and have no side effects!