Are you doing enough to keep your heart healthy? February is American Heart Month, and public health officials are challenging Americans to take up at least one new, healthy heart behavior this month. The initiative, sponsored primarily by the CDC, aims to raise awareness about the biggest factors that lead to heart complications:
- High blood pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Poor Diet & Exercise
Of course, there are also inborn risk factors that we can’t control, such as a genetic predisposition toward high cholesterol or irregular heartbeat; and men (especially African American men) have a higher risk of developing heart disease than women. However, there are certain behaviors that we do have the power to change. Here are a few examples.
In general, too much psychological stress is a bad thing for your overall health. In relation to heart health, stress raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, leading to more serious complications down the road. Stress can also encourage behaviors like smoking, over-eating, poor diet, alcoholism and low physical activity.
It’s easier said than done, but you can greatly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease if you try to quit smoking this month. According to the CDC, even people who smoke fewer than five cigarettes per day can show early signs of heart disease, and up to 33,000 non-smokers die every year from heart disease caused by secondhand smoke. The chemicals in tobacco smoke, such as nicotine and tar, can damage blood cells and cause blood vessels to inflame and narrow, which increases the risk for atherosclerosis, coronary heart diseases and stroke. Quitting smoking can be a tough and lonely journey, but there are helpful tips and support groups available at smokefree.gov.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
If you have high blood pressure, there’s a good chance it’s not your fault. The risk of hypertension is highest among men, African Americans, people over 55 and people with a family history. And the risk is even higher if you use common drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, sudafed and even some birth control pills. With all these factors, it can seem like the cards are stacked against us (in fact, in 95% of hypertension patients the causes are unknown). However, there are certain behaviors we can control to reduce blood pressure; for example, eating less salt, drinking less alcohol and exercising more. And if you can quit smoking, all the better.
High Cholesterol, Diet and Exercise
It’s no secret that having high cholesterol—specifically LDL cholesterol and triglycerides—greatly increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s true that many people are genetically predisposed toward having high cholesterol, but everyone can control the behaviors that raise cholesterol further. For example, you can opt for low–cholesterol foods like olive oil, salmon, almond butter and lentils. And exercising regularly reduces cholesterol levels and keeps your heart healthy. According to the Surgeon General, adults should exercise for at least 2.5 hours every week under moderate intensity.
Sounds Tough, Doesn’t It?
All these risk factors can sound daunting, but fortunately there are plenty of groups you can join to help you eat healthier, exercise more, drink less, quit smoking and reduce stress. Think about joining a running club or joining a group like Weight Watchers to help you get started. And you can join the Million Hearts Challenge if you’re looking for something more. Good luck!