National Heart Month: Building Healthy Habits for a Healthy Heart

By Dr. Charles Villoch

The heart is an amazing muscle. Each day, your heart pumps over 2,000 gallons of blood, circulating oxygen through the 60,000 miles of blood vessels in your body. With so much riding on the muscle, it’s no surprise that heart diseases are the #1 cause of death in America – if your heart weakens or stops beating, cells throughout your body lose the nutrients they need to keep living.

February is American Heart Month – a time to celebrate all our hearts do for us, and to recognize what we can do to keep our hearts healthy. While the dangers of cardiovascular disease are real, the good news is that an estimated 80% of heart disease can be prevented. Simple awareness habits and changes in lifestyle can greatly reduce your heart risk, and help you catch problems earlier when they do occur. This month, treat your heart well with these healthy heart practices.

Know your health numbers.

Managing your health is key to preventing heart disease, and two numbers essential to heart health are your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Blood pressure represents the pressure your blood exerts on your arteries as it travels through your body. If your blood pressure is too high for too long, it can damage your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in your blood, and comes in two forms – high-density lipoprotein (“HDL” or “good” cholesterol) is healthy and produced naturally by your body, whereas low-density lipoprotein (“LDL” or “bad” cholesterol) is gained by eating fatty foods. If your “bad” cholesterol levels grow too high, plaque can build up in your arteries, stifling the flow of blood to your heart.

Other risk factors include age, genetic background and family health history. While these risks are outside your control, it’s important to monitor them and discuss them with your provider – the higher your baseline heart risk, the more vital it is to control your other risk factors. This month, schedule an appointment to test your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and ask your primary care provider how you can keep your numbers in a healthy range.

Eat a heart-healthy diet.

A healthy diet is the best way to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and to get your heart the nutrients it needs. Reduce your “bad” cholesterol by eating foods that are high in fiber, such as whole grains and leafy greens, and by consuming fewer saturated fats and trans fats. Lower your blood pressure by limiting your intake of salt, alcohol, and added sugars. When choosing proteins, focus on nuts, legumes, and lean meats like chicken or fish, while cutting back on red meat and fried food.

In addition, smoking is strongly linked to both high blood pressure and heart disease. If you’re a current smoker, reach out for help with quitting. Find free cessation resources by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Build a hardy heart with cardio exercise.

Like any muscle, your heart becomes stronger the more it’s used. Cardiovascular exercise – physical activity that elevates your heart rate – is essential for your health, and helps you manage your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The average person should get 150 minutes of cardio exercise each week. This can equate to a 30-minute jog each day after work, or a couple evenings per week playing recreational sports. Find an activity you enjoy and set a time in your schedule when you know you can get up and move.

Know the symptoms of a heart attack.

Not all heart disease has symptoms. Often, the condition is “silent,” with risk factors going unseen and unaddressed until the day of a heart attack. That’s why it’s so vital to discuss your risks with a provider. When symptoms do occur, they sometimes leave patients with little warning. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you or someone you love experiences any of the following:

· Pain or discomfort in the chest, arm, neck, or upper back

· Fluttering feelings in the chest (arrhythmia)

· Feeling dizzy, faint, or out of breath

· Women may also experience sudden nausea or exhaustion

No one should have to live in fear of heart disease. By taking charge of your blood pressure and cholesterol, and recognizing the warning signs of a heart attack, you can lift a real weight off your chest. This Heart Month, schedule a visit with your primary care provider and ask about the steps you can take to live a healthy life.

If you would like to speak to a provider about your heart health, Wythe County Community Hospital can help. Call 800.424.DOCS or visit the “Find a Doctor/Provider” tab at WCCH.org to schedule an appointment today. In the event of a heart-related emergency, call 9-1-1. Minutes matter, and acting quickly may save a life, including your own.

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