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Do’s and Don’ts for a Healthy Heart

Although it’s only about the size of your fist, your heart has a mighty job. Every day, it beats about 100,000 times, pumping 5 or 6 quarts of blood each minute, or about 2,000 gallons per day. To sustain life, your heart pushes your blood 12,000 miles through your body each day, almost quadrupling the distance from Miami to Seattle.

Any damage to the heart, its valves, and the cardiovascular system can reduce that pumping power, forcing the heart to work harder. Today, physicians understand more than ever about the diagnosis and treatment of many heart conditions. Yet despite many breakthroughs, heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide.

It is encouraging to see the rapid advances in treatments, surgical techniques, and technology to address a wide range of heart conditions. But as physicians, our goal is prevention whenever possible,” says Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., chief population health officer for Baptist Health and chief of cardiology and deputy director of Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. “Cardiovascular disease is largely preventable, and there are many things people can do to take charge of their health.”

On World Heart Day, a global observance to promote heart health, it’s important to remember that the primary causes of cardiovascular diseases — poor diet, sedentary lifestyles, and smoking — are modifiable factors.

Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you improve heart health at every age:

• Monitor Your Blood Pressure. High blood pressure is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in the United States. One in three American adults has high blood pressure, and only about half of them have it under control. Hypertension can affect anyone; but as people get older, blood pressure rises — along with risk of stroke and heart disease. The problem is that high blood pressure has no symptoms; that’s why it’s important to check it regularly and take steps to keep it under control. A study published in The Lancet medical journal found that for every decrease of 10 in your systolic blood pressure reading, you lower your risk of stroke by 27 percent, your risk of heart failure by 28 percent and your risk of heart disease by 17 percent.

• Watch Your Cholesterol. Blood cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by your liver. Your body needs it to perform important jobs such as making hormones and digestion. But having too much blood cholesterol can lead to a buildup called plaque on the walls of your arteries. Over time, plaque causes the insides of your arteries narrow, blocking blood flow. Knowing your cholesterol status can help you be proactive and stay in control of your health by adjusting your diet and possibly taking medication, if needed.

• Get Moving. Apart from not smoking, exercise is probably the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease. More than 50 years of research has shown that the more physically active you are, the lower your risk of heart disease. Exercise improves cholesterol levels and promotes beneficial changes in the heart and coronary arteries. It also helps ease mental stress — a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart problems. Staying physically active can help you control your weight and strengthen your heart. Even modest activity, such as walking for 10 minutes several times a day, can provide benefits. Any amount of exercise, no matter how short, is better than nothing. This is especially true if you already have some form of heart disease. The minimum goal of 150 minutes of exercise a week is very attainable.

• Get a Good Night’s Sleep. Most adults need between 7-8 hours of sleep nightly. Poor or inadequate sleep is associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, atherosclerosis, heart attack, diabetes and obesity. Inadequate sleep has also been linked to coronary calcium, a component of plaque. In addition, blood levels of several inflammatory markers increase with poor sleep. In one study, middle-aged women who got five or fewer hours of sleep per night over a 10-year period had a 30 percent greater risk for heart disease than women who averaged eight hours. Another cardiovascular risk is a sleep-disrupting breathing problem called sleep apnea. If your sleep is chronically disturbed or inadequate, or you often feel sleepy during the day, talk to your primary care clinician.

• Eat a healthy diet. Choose foods that are low in trans fat and sodium. Most people consume far more sodium than recommended, which can affect blood pressure. Most of the salt you get doesn’t come from the saltshaker but from processed foods. Cut back on packaged and prepared foods in favor of more fresh meals made at home. Focus on a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Aim for less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.

• Don’t skip your medications. If you’ve been given prescriptions for blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, take them consistently and as directed. It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions about medications and to keep taking them even if you feel well. If you’re having unpleasant side effects, don’t stop taking the medications on your own. Instead, ask about other options. Your healthcare provider may be able to recommend another medicine with fewer side effects.

• Don’t Ignore Your Mental Health. Most health experts agree that psychological factors can contribute to cardiac risk, although the links between the mind and heart health are hard to quantify. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently sounded the alarm about the public health crisis of loneliness and isolation. Dr. Murthy noted the physical health consequences of insufficient connections include a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Depression can influence factors such as exercising, avoiding cigarettes, eating well, and taking medications. Direct biological mechanisms may also be involved, including increases in inflammatory responses and blood clotting. Manage stress by coping in healthy ways with hobbies you enjoy, relaxation activities or exercise. If you find yourself struggling, reach out to a friend, loved one or mental health professional.

“After years of decline, the rates of cardiovascular deaths have been increasing in the U.S. over the past few years. It’s a troubling trend,” Dr. Fialkow says.  “It’s never too soon or too late to focus on improving your heart health.”


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