How to Practice Health to Your Heart's Content
February 1st, 2021 | Senior Health
By the time you read this, the reported deaths from COVID-19 will have exceeded 450,000 in the U.S. As staggering as that statistic is, it's 150,000 short of the 600,000 Americans who die every year from heart disease, the number one killer in all groups.
Let's not allow the topic to overwhelm the fact there's a miracle inside your chest. Weighing about as much as a grapefruit, the heart is a powerful pump that drives five to six quarts of blood to every microscopic part of your body every second. And if it fails for even a second, the body is very unforgiving. Even though it's the one piece of machinery driven by the brain, we tend to treat the heart like a kitchen appliance that we take for granted. Rarely serviced, rarely cleaned, and overworked until it burns out. Although heart bypass and transplant have become routine since the pioneering operations in the 1960s, it's not like replacing the coffee maker you neglected too long.
One Thing at a Time
The better way to treat your heart with the respect it deserves is to start with changing just small habits. That way, you'll avoid the relapse from trying to change everything at once and falling back to unhealthy heart habits inside of a month. The most obvious: if you're a smoker or heavy drinker, work on that first. Imagine a small team of remodelers arriving at your heart to do a makeover. The first thing they're going to say is, "Well, we can't do anything with the plumbing until we clear the smoke."
Look for Help During Heart Month
Quitting smoking and to reduce alcohol is never easy, but this is probably as good a time as any during the year to start a cessation program – with help. February is American Heart Month, so you're likely to be reminded frequently of heart health and offered tips on modifying your routine to help your heart and prolong a happy life. If you only look to one place, trust the American Heart Association – www.heart.org.
Prediabetes and Heart Disease
What's your blood sugar level? If you don't know, you should find out from your doctor if you're not already monitoring it yourself. You could be pre-diabetic without knowing it or showing any symptoms. There's a good chance you could avoid becoming diabetic and reverse your pre-diabetic blood sugar to normal with relatively little change to your diet and a slight increase in your activity. Diabetes has long been linked to heart disease, but recent studies suggest that reversing prediabetes is also linked to fewer heart attacks and strokes. ["Reversing Prediabetes linked to fewer heart attacks, strokes," heart.org, Jan. 26, 2021.]
While you're at it, get your cholesterol tested and routinely monitor your blood pressure.
If you're worried you might be at risk for heart disease, ask your doctor to perform a simple cholesterol test to let you know if you're at risk and should adjust your diet. Home blood pressure monitors are not expensive, they're digital, and they're easy to use. Blood pressure stations are common in supermarkets now, and you can also check your weight and pulse.
Women's Heart Health
Why the emphasis on women's heart health? The American Heart Association tells us that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year – about one woman every minute. They devote an entire website to women's heart health: Go Red for Women (www.goredforwomen.org). Here are just a few of the common misconceptions about women's heart health:
Myth: Heart disease is for men, and cancer is the real threat for women
Fact: Heart disease is a killer that strikes more women than men and is more deadly than all cancer forms combined. While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease is the cause of one out of every three deaths.
Myth: Heart disease is for old people
Fact: Heart disease affects women of all ages. For younger women, the combination of birth control pills and smoking boosts heart disease risks by 20 percent. Heart defects are more common than you might think: 1.3 million Americans alive today have some form of congenital heart defect and at least nine of every 1,000 infants born each year have a heart defect. Even if you live a completely healthy lifestyle, being born with an underlying heart condition can be a risk factor.
Myth: "I run marathons – no way I could be at risk."
Fact: Factors like cholesterol, eating habits, and smoking can counterbalance your other healthy habits. You can be thin and have high cholesterol. The American Heart Association says to start getting your cholesterol checked at age 20. Earlier, if your family has a history of heart disease.
Age and Heart Health
Many things, like wine and most people, grow better with age. The heart, however, takes more tending than a glass of fine wine. Avoid things that weaken your heart beyond the normal aging process. These are the usual suspects: smoking and tobacco use, lack of exercise, diet, alcohol, overeating, and stress. Some preexisting conditions you can't control: irregular heartbeat, congenital (inherited) heart defects, sleep apnea (although this may be a product of obesity or alcohol consumption).
Viruses and Myocarditis.
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle mostly caused by a virus, including COVID-19, and can lead to left-sided heart failure. The left ventricle of the heart is the part that pumps oxygen-rich blood back to the body. This valve tends to stiffen with age. That's one of the many reasons why age combined with a preexisting condition puts you at greater risk of death from COVID-19. Even survivors of the novel coronavirus infection can sustain permanent heart damage. All people must protect themselves and others from COVID-19 by observing precautions, not just because of its immediate lethality but also because of the it's impact on the heart, known and unknown.
How to Start with Your Heart
The factors involved in heart health and the onset of heart disease are many, varied, and complicated. But the common preventions (listed here, from the Mayo Clinic) are simple. You probably already know them by heart, so to speak:
- Not smoking
- Controlling certain conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes
- Staying physically active
- Eating healthy foods
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Reducing and managing stress
Those may seem like six significant challenges, especially if you take on all six. But you should notice something else about them. Almost every one of them can affect the other five. So, if you pick one, you'll find it easier to take on the next one. People who quit smoking usually discover that they have more energy within the first week, and exercise becomes easier. A little exercise and switching out one unhealthy food will help with weight, stress, blood pressure, and diabetes. Easy does it, especially if you're 65 and older. You've spent a whole life learning one way. You can take your time. Learn to enjoy your healthier heart. But start today.
First, Get a Checkup!
Most of the questions this article has raised in your mind ("What's my blood sugar level?" "What's my blood pressure?" "I used to smoke – am I at risk?") can all be answered in a single doctor's visit with simple lab work done a few days before. Schedule it now, before you start a program of exercise and diet. And schedule a regular exam per your doctor's recommendation. Relieving the stress of not knowing will be a good start on your way to a healthier heart.