American Heart Month is recognized every February to bring awareness to the risk factors that cause heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. but in many cases, it’s preventable.
Learn more about heart disease and what you can do to keep this vital organ going strong below.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease refers to a group of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. The most common type of heart disease in the U.S. is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) which affects blood flow to the heart and can lead to heart attack.
Top 7 causes of heart disease
Health means something different to each of us because we’re all unique, but knowing what factors lead to heart disease can help us make choices that help decrease our risk of developing a heart condition.
Some of the most common risk factors for developing heart disease are:
- Smoking or tobacco use can cause coronary heart disease and irreparable damage to the heart. Second-hand smoke is also a concern. Smoking can cause plaque to develop within your blood vessels, making them narrower, and impeding the free flow of blood. Chemicals in cigarettes can also thicken arteries and cause clots in your veins.
- High blood pressure or hypertension strains the heart and can lead to cardiovascular complications. Diet, lack of exercise, and stress are the number one causes of high blood pressure.
- The consumption of too many lipoproteins, a type of soluble protein that combines with fat or other lipids in your blood plasma, can lead to heart disease. Trans fats are the most unhealthy and cause damage to the cardiovascular system.
- Lack of exercise is a great contributor to heart disease. The movement of your body helps to move blood through your veins and keep your heart healthy.
- Diabetes is a risk-factor for heart disease. High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels and the nerves that support the heart.
- Thrombosis leads to heart disease. This is a condition when blood clots develop in the veins or arteries.
- Stress is a great contributor to lagging heart health. Irritability, depression, anxiety, rumination, and a lack of quality sleep can contribute to high blood pressure, leading to an increased risk of stroke or heart attack.
Signs of a heart attack
Don’t ignore cardiovascular symptoms. This includes heart attack symptoms like these:
- Pain, pressure, or squeezing in the chest, particularly the left side
- Pain in the upper body such as the shoulders, neck, upper stomach, arms, or even jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling sick to your stomach or nausea
- Stomach ache or heartburn
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Feeling unusually tired
- Breaking out into a cold sweat
If you feel any of these symptoms, seek medical care immediately.
Follow these 5 heart health tips to improve your heart health
Now that you know what causes heart disease and the symptoms of acute cardiovascular failure, here are 5 tips to improve the health and vibrancy of your beautiful heart:
- Practice good dental hygiene. Bacteria in your mouth can cause gum disease and can move into your bloodstream, causing an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease by increasing C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in blood vessels. Floss and brush every day, and also use a mouthwash to dislodge small food particles from the gums and teeth. Eating leafy greens and fiber, as well as whole fruits and vegetables can also contribute to better oral hygiene and improved heart health.
- Increase your daily exercise and don’t sit for too long. If you work at a computer, or have a sedentary job, research shows that even if you exercise regularly, sitting too long is connected to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, possibly causing deep vein thrombosis. Take frequent breaks, walk around, stretch, or even better, take a brief jaunt outside. Spending time in nature can reduce stress. As few as 20 minutes in a park can lower cortisol levels and improve your heart health. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s linked to higher incidence of inflammation in your body. Also, just increasing moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise to at least 20 minutes daily can protect your heart.
- Quit smoking and stay away from second-hand smoke. Your risk of developing heart disease increases 25 to 30 percent if you are exposed to second-hand smoke. The risk is even higher for children. Nonsmokers who are exposed to smoke that have high blood pressure or high cholesterol are at greater risk of developing heart disease. The chemicals you inhale from second-hand smoke cause plaque buildup in your arteries, so stay away from second-hand smoke no matter what. If you smoke, you’re 2 to 4 times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers. Try to get help quitting the habit, or replace it with a heart-healthy habit like walking on your lunch break. BeTobaccoFree.gov offers great tips on quitting smoking including smoke-free apps and expert advice.
- Reduce trans-fat. Fat isn’t the enemy of your heart, trans fats are. Both saturated and unsaturated fats are important for your health. Fats help the body absorb fat-soluble nutrients like Vitamins A, D, and E. You don't require trans-fats. These are highly processed fats that clog your arteries and raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL) while lowering good cholesterol (HDL). Trans fats are most often in processed foods like baked goods, snack foods, margarine, and fried foods. Avoid them and replace them with healthy fats found in foods like nuts, coconut, olive oil, and avocado.
- Sleep better. Without ample sleep, your body cannot “clean house.” When you sleep, your body does important cleaning work, and reduces your overall stress burden, lowering stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. A lack of sufficient sleep causes increased inflammation and other hormonal imbalances in the body that contribute to cardiovascular disease and other diseases too. People who sleep fewer than 6 to 8 hours a night are twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack as people who get ample sleep. For better sleep, turn off your cell phone and computer at least 2 hours prior to going to bed to prevent blue-light exposure, make your room slightly cooler, and hang black-out curtains to make your room as dark as possible. Also, try to go to sleep at the same time every night to develop good sleep hygiene. These good habits help regulate your circadian cycle and sleep-wake hormones. Your heart will thank you for better sleep.
While heart disease is the biggest killer in the US, there are actions you can take to reduce your risk today. Eat healthily, exercise, sleep better, reduce stress, and stop smoking to see vast improvements in your heart’s health.
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