American Heart Month: Ways to Protect Your Greatest Organ This Year and Beyond
February marks American Heart Month – our annual opportunity to spread awareness about heart health and our leading killer, heart disease. As the calendar flips to February 2024, now is the perfect time to reflect on the state of our ticker and commit to protecting this vital organ that powers us each and every day.
Heart disease takes over 695,000 American lives each year - an incredibly sobering statistic that means over 1,900 people lose their battle with cardiovascular conditions daily. What's even more alarming is that many of these deaths could have been prevented through lifestyle modifications and management of risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking. Yet heart disease marches on as public enemy number one.
This February, let’s take action to improve our heart health.
Understanding Heart Disease
Heart disease refers to several conditions that can affect the heart's structure and function. The most common type in the United States is coronary artery disease, which occurs when plaque builds up in the heart's arteries. This buildup is known as atherosclerosis. As more plaque accumulates, the arteries narrow and stiffen.
Blood flow to the heart muscle can slow down or get blocked completely, causing a heart attack. Other types of heart disease affect the heart's muscles, valves, or rhythm. Several factors raise your risk for developing heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of having heart problems.
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Unhealthy diet
- Excess alcohol use
While some risk factors are out of your control, such as family history, age, and sex, there are many ways to reduce your risk through lifestyle changes and medication if needed.
Preventing Heart Disease in February and Beyond
The good news? Heart disease can often be prevented when people commit to a healthy lifestyle. American Heart Month is the perfect time to take action to lower your risk. Here are tips for improving your cardiovascular health:
Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke. Smoking raises your blood pressure, damages blood vessels, and makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot. Every cigarette you smoke increases the damage to your cardiovascular system. Exposure to secondhand smoke carries many of the same risks. If you don’t smoke – don’t start. If you do smoke – quitting will have immediate and long-term benefits. Talk to your doctor about options to help you kick the habit for good.
Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese strains your heart and worsens several risk factors. Losing even a small amount of weight can benefit your heart if you stick with it. Aim to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight – or get as close as you can if you have a lot to lose. Focus on permanent lifestyle changes over the long term instead of short-term dieting. Add more activity into your daily routine for better heart health and weight control.
Get moving. Make regular physical activity a part of every day. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity, like brisk walking, cycling, gardening, or anything that raises your heart rate and builds strength. Moving more helps control cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood
pressure. Recent research also found that just 5-10 minutes of running each day reduces the risk of death from heart attack or stroke. Work activity into every part of your routine – take the stairs, do bodyweight exercises while watching TV, walk everywhere you can, and find a workout buddy to inspire you.
Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Choose fiber-rich whole grains, produce, healthy fats like olive oil, fatty fish, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Limit sodium, sugar, alcohol, processed meats like bacon and deli meats, and highly processed snack foods and desserts. Improving your diet can benefit nearly every aspect of cardiovascular health from blood pressure and inflammation to
cholesterol and weight. It provides energy for an active lifestyle too!
Take medication as prescribed. If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other risk factors, be sure to follow your doctor’s medication instructions carefully. Ask questions about possible side effects and stay current on refills. Medications help manage disease processes that diet and lifestyle changes cannot always bring under control. They often save lives when combined with healthy habits.
Get enough quality sleep. Poor sleep has been connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Aim for 7-9 hours per night of quality sleep to support physical health and mental well-being. Keeping normal sleep-wake times, avoiding screens before bed, limiting caffeine,
alcohol, and heavy meals in the evening, and creating a restful sleep environment help achieve restorative rest. Ask your doctor if an underlying condition could be affecting your sleep.
Manage stress levels. Chronic stress takes a toll on your health over time. High levels of stress hormones like cortisol contribute to problems like high blood pressure, elevated lipids, faster heart rate, and increased risk of heart disease events. Carve out daily relaxation, set aside time for hobbies, get support from friends and family, and practice breathing exercises – do what works best for you to calm your body’s stress response.
Get preventative care. Seeing your healthcare providers for regular well visits helps detect any problems early when they are most treatable. That includes meeting with your primary care provider annually for a physical, knowing your numbers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels, discussing family history and risk factors openly with your providers, and completing recommended cancer screenings. Early detection saves lives – so prioritize preventative appointments.
Learn Hands-Only CPR. Hands-Only CPR is CPR without mouth-to-mouth breaths, involving fast hard pushes to the center of a person’s chest at a rate of 100-120 compressions per minute. It has been shown to be as effective as conventional CPR for cardiac arrest at home, at work, or in public if administered immediately after cardiac arrest. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone learn Hands-Only CPR - it takes just minutes to learn and could potentially save a life.
While February shines a special spotlight on cardiovascular health with American Heart Month, remember to make heart-healthy choices in your daily life all year long. Adopting better habits leads to better health over time. With commitment and consistency, you can reduce your risk for heart disease through simple but powerful lifestyle changes.
Know the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
A heart attack is a medical emergency that happens when blood flow to part of the heart muscle gets severely reduced or cut off completely. Muscle cells in the heart begin to die without oxygen delivered by the blood. Swift treatment is crucial to save heart muscle and prevent death. The longer treatment is delayed, the more damage occurs. Learning to recognize warning signs and getting help without delay gives you the best chance of survival and recovery.
Some heart attacks strike suddenly and intensely, but most start slowly with mild discomfort that progresses. Pay attention to how you feel. Be aware of these common signs of a heart attack:
- Chest discomfort that can feel like pressure, tightness, pain, squeezing, or aching. It may come and go.
- Upper body discomfort in areas like one or both arms (especially the left arm), the jaw, neck, shoulders, or upper back can signal a heart attack.
- Stomach issues like nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, or heartburn are also common signs.
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing normally either when resting or doing a little physical activity. This often comes along with chest discomfort.
- Anxiety, including a sense of impending doom about your health even when other symptoms are mild. Excessive sweating or feeling unusually fatigued, dizzy, or lightheaded may occur.
- Coughing that starts suddenly and repeatedly. Congestion and wheezing could indicate heart problems rather than a respiratory illness.
Keep in mind that signs can vary a lot from one person to another. Symptoms may come and go over the course of several hours. Some people (women more often than men) can experience a heart attack with less obvious symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbances, and confusion.
Don’t ignore or downplay symptoms that concern you. Call emergency services without delay if you suspect you or someone else is having a heart attack – every minute matters when life and death are at stake. Paramedics provide emergency care on the way to the hospital, helping save precious heart muscle.
New Advances Give Hope for Better Heart Health
The impact of heart disease remains significant, but there have been remarkable advancements in cardiovascular health that offer hope for better prevention and treatment. Here are some of the latest innovations in cardiovascular health as of February 2024:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Cardiology: The emerging role of AI in cardiology is gaining attention. AI algorithms can analyze large amounts of patient data to identify patterns and make predictions, aiding in early detection and personalized treatment plans.
- Interventional Cardiology: Interventional procedures, such as catheter-based treatments, have become more advanced. These procedures allow for minimally invasive treatment of cardiovascular conditions, reducing recovery time and improving patient outcomes.
- Anti-Lipid Therapy: There have been advancements in anti-lipid therapy, which focuses on managing cholesterol levels. New medications and treatment strategies are being developed to effectively lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
- Cardiac CT: Cardiac CT scans are playing an increasingly important role in day-to-day practice. They provide detailed images of the heart and blood vessels, aiding in the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular diseases.
- Contemporary Management of Cardiovascular Conditions: There have been significant developments in the management of various cardiovascular conditions. This includes thoracic aortic aneurysm, cardio-oncology, pulmonary hypertension, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and renovascular hypertension.
- Left Atrial Appendage Closure: Left atrial appendage closure is a procedure used to reduce the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation. New techniques and devices are being developed to improve the efficacy and safety of this procedure.
- Debates in Cardiovascular Care: Debates on topics such as the choice of antiplatelet therapy post percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), treatment options for heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), and the selection of transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) valves in patients with aortic stenosis are ongoing. These debates help refine treatment approaches and improve patient outcomes.
Together these encouraging innovations give us growing hope that cardiovascular disease impacts can be mitigated through cutting edge medical technology as well as a greater emphasis on evidence based nutrition, physical activity, and lifestyle medicine for prevention - especially important during American Heart Month!
Nevertheless, we have considerable work left to ensure these advances benefits all people equitably. Public policy initiatives promoting better food systems, built environments amenable to physical activity, and addressing upstream health disparities remains vital to reduce the outsized heart disease burdens on marginalized communities.
During this American Heart Month in February, let’s take time to appreciate how much progress had been made in recent years for preventing and treating heart disease while re-committing to make healthy lifestyle behaviors the norm. If current promising trends in medical technology continue - combined with a groundswell of public demand for programs and policies making healthy choices default choices - we have much hope for turning the tide against heart disease in years to come!
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