February is American Heart Month and Valentine’s Day is an ideal time to acknowledge the importance of cardiovascular health.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., but it doesn’t have to be that way. While you can’t alter your genetic makeup, it’s possible to make lifestyle choices and change behaviors to help reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke.
What Can You Do?
To promote heart health, evaluate your risk factors. What do you eat? Do you have an exercise routine? Do you get enough sleep? Do you smoke, drink heavily or have difficulty managing stress?
If you decide to modify your diet, ask a medical professional for guidance. Experts recommend gradually introducing recommended foods and reducing intake of foods you know aren’t particularly good for you. U.S. dietary guidelines call for:
- Vegetables from all subgroups
- Fruits, especially whole fresh fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products and fortified soy beverages
- Protein including fish, seafood, lean meats, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy
A healthy eating pattern limits saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, alcohol and sodium. Foods high in sodium can cause your body to retain water and make your cardiovascular system work harder.
People of all ages are encouraged to meet Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans to improve their fitness and resilience. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends at least 150 minutes (2½ hours) a week of physical activity that gets your heart pumping and leaves you a little breathless. Even short bursts of exercise and frequent walking can have lasting benefits.
Studies show that stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation, socializing with friends and engaging in hobbies helps lower blood pressure, improve mood and reduce chronic disease risk.
If you smoke cigarettes, consider ways to quit. Not smoking lowers risk for heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer and other diseases. Many local organizations and employers offer smoking cessation programs.
A heart attack occurs when an artery is blocked by a blood clot or plaque that builds up over time. A stroke occurs when blood and oxygen supply is blocked or a blood vessel in the brain bursts. An emergency response is required.
Signs of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain, squeezing or pressure
- Pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness
Signs of stroke include:
- Weakness in the face, arms or legs, especially on one side
- Blurred vision
- Trouble walking
- Dizziness or loss of balance
- Severe headache
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is an indicator of the force of blood pushing against arterial walls. Hypertension hardens arteries, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Certain medical conditions or medications may increase your blood pressure.
To understand your blood pressure:
- Have a clinician check it or monitor it yourself using a home kit or pharmacy blood-pressure station. Be sure the pressure cuff fits your arm.
- Know how to read your numbers. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury and read as one number over the other. The upper number – systolic – measures pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The bottom number – diastolic – measures pressure between beats.
- Get a thorough checkup if you are in a mid-to-high-range. Let your provider know about any over-the-counter medications or supplements you are taking.
- Be consistent if you are instructed to make lifestyle changes and/or take prescribed medications for hypertension or other conditions.
Refer to the American Heart Association for blood pressure ranges and other American Heart Month resources.