Perhaps the only thing more frightening than the number of lives it claims is the number of people it’s targeting.
“It” is America’s deadliest killer: heart disease. It comes in various forms, including the dreaded coronary heart disease, but the one thing it’s known for is its ability to cut lives short. Heart disease kills more than 600,000 Americans each year. And when groupd with other diseases that affect the heart’s ability to function or its structure, more than 800,000 people die of cardiovascular disease in the United States each year.
A lot of Americans deal with heart disease on a daily basis. According to the National Institute of Health, 11.7 percent of adults in the U.S. — that’s more than 1 in every 10 of us — have been diagnosed with heart disease.
But the truly frightening statistic is how many people are at risk of developing heart disease. According to the NIH, 90 percent of middle-aged people and more than 74 percent of young adults have one or more risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being a smoker, or being overweight.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re at risk of heart disease.
The good news is that there are a lot of things Americans can do to help their hearts. February is American Heart Month, and this year the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has launched the #OurHearts movement, which is aimed at encouraging Americans to connect with one another to accomplish the goal of healthy hearts.
Did you know that people who have close relationships at home, work, or in their community tend to be healthier and live longer? One reason, according to the NHLBI, is that we’re more successful at meeting our health goals when we join forces with others. That’s the purpose of the #OurHearts movement: to inspire us to protect and strengthen our hearts with the support of others.
By now you know — if for no other reason than you’ve read this far — that having diabetes, or high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, increases your risk for heart disease. So, too, does being overweight or being a smoker. But what you might not know is that having more than one of these risk factors increases your risk even more.
So if you’re among the vast majority of Americans who are at risk, it’s time to start on a journey towards better health. Feeling connected with others and having positive, close relationships benefits our overall health, including our blood pressure and weight. Having people in our lives who motivate and care for us helps, as do feelings of closeness and companionship.
Gather your friends, your family, your coworkers and others in your community, and start encouraging one another to follow heart-healthy lifestyle tips. You’ll all be heart-healthier for it.
Among the steps you can take:
• Be more physically active.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Eat a nutritious diet.
• Quit smoking.
• Reduce your stress.
• Get enough quality sleep.
• Track your heart health stats.
You don’t have to make big changes all at once. Small steps will get you where you want to go.
Invite family, friends, colleagues, or members of your community to join you in your efforts to be more physically active:
• Ask a colleague to walk with you on a regular basis, put the date on both your calendars, and text or call to make sure you both show up.
• Join an exercise class at your local community center and bring a neighbor along. Carpool or walk there together to make it a regular date.
• Grab your kids, put on music, and do jumping jacks, skip rope, or dance.
• Make your social time active and encourage everyone—family and friends alike—to think of fun activities that get you off the couch and moving.
How much is enough? Aim for at least 2½ hours of physical activity each week—that’s just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. In addition, do muscle strengthening exercises 2 days a week. Can’t carve out a lot of time in your day? Don’t chuck your goal, chunk it! Try 10 or 15 minutes a few times a day. NHLBI’s Move More fact sheet provides ideas to get and keep you moving.
Aim for a healthy weight
Find someone in your friend group, at work, or in your family who also wants to reach or maintain a healthy weight. (If you’re overweight, even a small weight loss of 5–10 percent helps your health.) Check in with them regularly to stay motivated. Do healthy activities together, like walking or playing on a neighborhood sports team. Share low-calorie, low-sodium meals or recipes. Check out NHLBI’s Aim for a Healthy Weight web page.
Eat heart healthy
We tend to eat like our friends and family, so ask others close to you to join in your effort to eat healthier. Together, try NHLBI’s free Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. Research shows that, compared to a typical American diet, it lowers high blood pressure and improves blood cholesterol levels. Find delicious recipes at NHLBI’s Heart Healthy Eating web page.
To help you quit, ask others for support or join a support group. Research shows that people are much more likely to quit if their spouse, friend, or sibling does. Social support online can also help you quit. All states have quit lines with trained counselors—call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). You’ll find many free resources to help you quit, such as apps, a motivational text service, and a chat line at BeTobaccoFree.hhs.gov and Smokefree.gov.
If you need extra motivation to quit, consider those around you: Breathing other people’s smoke, called secondhand smoke, is dangerous. Thousands of adult nonsmokers die of stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.
Sleeping 7–8 hours a night helps to improve heart health. De-stressing will help you sleep, as does getting a 30-minute daily dose of sunlight. Take a walk instead of a late afternoon nap! Family members and friends: remind each other to turn off the screen and stick to a regular bedtime. Instead of watching TV before bed, relax by listening to music, reading, or taking a bath.
Track your heart health stats, together
Keeping a log of your blood pressure, weight goals, physical activity, and if you have diabetes, your blood sugars, will help you stay on a heart healthy track. Ask your friends or family to join you in the effort. Check out NHLBI’s Healthy Blood Pressure for Healthy Hearts: Tracking Your Numbers worksheet by visitingnhlbi.nih.gov.
Whether it’s a traffic jam, family disagreement, or an unexpected bill, everyday life can cause stress. While some stress is perfectly healthy, what happens if you are not able to manage these life challenges easily? The overwhelming stressors can lead to psychological, emotional and physical problems. According to Dr. Rocio Huet, Director of Integrative Medicine and an internal medicine physician at The University of Tennessee Medical Center (UTMC), stress management is very important to maintaining overall health and is vital to heart health.
“Heart disease is one of those physical problems unmanaged stress can increase,” says Huet. “We aren’t sure if stress itself increases the risk of heart disease or if high stress makes other potential risk factors worse, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. When we are highly stressed, we tend to overeat, sleep poorly, move less, and sometimes boost our alcohol and tobacco use.”
Huet explains that these behaviors only increase our risk factors for heart disease.
“Chronic stress elevates our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which increase our bodies’ inflammation, predisposing us to cholesterol plaque rupture with clotting in the heart arteries leading to heart attacks.”
“Stress can also affect your emotional health,” says Huet. “It can lead to increased anxiety or depression. We know that depression and heart disease often occur together.”
How can we better manage our everyday stress to increase our heart health in a positive way? Huet gives us some daily habits to practice managing stress.
• Breathe with awareness: “Practice taking ten deep slow diaphragmatic breaths when you need to calm yourself. This moves us away from the flight/fright mode to lower adrenaline.”
• Start your day with a gratitude meditation: “Spend three minutes every morning before leaving bed visualizing five people in your life and send them each your silent gratitude. This allows you to start out with positivity and without immediately ruminating about your day.”
• Practice self-care: “Find time by unplugging from technology for at least 20 minutes and limiting your exposure to news. Turn off your work phone and do not answer emails during this time. Interact more with your loved ones, enjoy the sun daily, do something creative, practice yoga.”
• Eat healthy: “Eating more plant based whole foods can benefit your health. Try to be mindful when eating so you don’t overeat. A balanced colorful diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and lean proteins will help maintain your energy.”
• Move more: “Exercise is an excellent stress reliever by releasing pent up adrenaline. It is relaxing and energizing. Physical activity enhances mood, self-esteem and overall well-being in addition to enhancing strength and stamina. Devote time every day to movement.”
• Get adequate sleep: “Seven to nine hours of quality sleep is necessary for most adults. During sleep you enable your body to repair and detoxify. Sleep may also prevent excess weight gain as well as prevent heart disease.”
• Limit alcohol consumption: “In addition to causing stress, drinking excessively can increase liver and heart disease, and interfere with sleep. It can also cause irreversible damage to your arteries. Decreasing alcohol consumption will help you maintain a healthier heart and reduce your stress.”
According to Huet, nearly half of Americans have heart disease and it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for men and women.
“Taking steps now to control your stress will decrease your chances for chronic heart diseases and will help you live a healthier happier life.”
For reliable information on taking care of your health or a loved one’s health, contact UTMC’s Health Information Center at 865.305.9525 or online at www.utmedicalcenter.org/hic. Staffed by medical librarians and certified health information specialists, the Health Information Center offers an extensive health library, digital and printed resources, walk-in assistance, and help with the research on specific health conditions – all free of charge and available to the public.