Heart healthy

Heart disease rates have decreased since the early 1960s but cardiovascular disease still accounts for one in every four U.S. deaths and one in every three in Alaska. 

Considering the heart in February includes more than getting Valentine’s Day cards and chocolates ready.

February has been called American Heart Month since 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson, who suffered from heart disease, first highlighted cardiovascular disease as a major national public health problem.

Each year, presidential proclamations have reaffirmed this need to focus national and individual efforts on improving heart health. This makes February an appropriate time to examine your risks and create your “heart health to-do list.”

Heart disease rates have decreased since the early 1960s but cardiovascular disease still accounts for one in every four U.S. deaths (one in every three in Alaska), with a death from heart attack occurring approximately every 40 seconds. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.

A new habit, hopefully one that will soon be relegated to a once-a-year vaccination, involves taking precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that individuals with preexisting conditions had higher rates of death from COVID-19. Data published in December 2020 confirmed a 25-38 percent higher mortality rate from COVID-19 in individuals with cardiovascular disease than those without. In addition, many who contract COVID-19 will be left with long-term heart tissue inflammation, raising the risk for cardiovascular disease and its complications.

Heart health to-do list

Follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to avoid contracting COVID-19. Get immunizations as soon as you are able; wear a well-fitted, two-layer mask over mouth and nose; stay 6 feet from others; avoid large gatherings; wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

Smoking is one of the greatest modifiable risk factors contributing to heart disease, causing an estimated one out of every five cardiovascular disease deaths. There is a lot to say about the effect of smoking on the heart — all of it unfavorable. Smoking raises blood pressure, increases blood clotting, raises bad cholesterol levels and triglycerides, and lowers good cholesterol. Smoking may permanently damage the heart and lungs. Secondhand smoke also raises heart disease risk for those around you and your loved ones. Stop smoking; keep trying and get help from your doctor if you need it. Alaska provides free help for quitting at the hotline,1-800 QUIT NOW or 1-800-784-8669.

High blood pressure is a second modifiable risk factor. The CDC reports that high blood pressure is a primary or contributing cause of nearly a half-million deaths per year. The current recommendation, for all ages, is to attain and maintain a blood pressure no higher than 120 mm Hg/80 mm Hg. 

Measure your blood pressure regularly. High blood pressure is largely without noticeable symptoms. Lower blood pressure by eating three to five servings of vegetables and four to five servings of fruits daily along with a low-fat food plan (DASH or Mediterranean food plan). Get 150 minutes regular aerobic exercise weekly and resistance exercise two to three times per week. Make a plan for weight loss if you are overweight. Control diabetes and lower blood sugar levels if needed. Use medications if you are unable to lower your blood pressure through other means.

Prediabetes and diabetes are correlated with greatly increased risk of heart disease so focus on bringing blood sugar into normal ranges. A study published in July 2020 showed that prediabetes was associated with a 15 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease, over an average follow-up time of around 10 years.

Get tested for prediabetes and if you find that your blood sugar is higher than recommended, take steps to lower it. Aerobic exercise is helpful but even resistance exercise alone can be effective in lowering blood sugar levels. Making food choice changes to promote weight loss can help diabetes and prediabetes. Find out about local opportunities to participate in the National Diabetes Prevention Program to help with weight loss and lifestyle changes.

The heart and brain are strongly connected and recovery from cardiovascular disease and prevention of it may depend upon our emotional health. Especially in individuals with heart disease, “expressions like ‘died from fright’ and ‘worried to death’ are not just hyperbole — they are physiologic possibilities.” Taking care of the heart should definitely include giving and receiving expressions of love and affection. These habits contribute to heart health and should be intentional parts of everyday living.

Take an honest look at your feelings. Consult with a medical provider if you are experiencing depression, anxiety or loneliness. Practice relaxation techniques, positive thinking, tai chi, meditation or other “mind-body” practices and get some daily physical activity. Make a habit of connecting with someone else every day.

Here are some final tips for your heart health to-do list. Feelings of love, connection and compassion are associated with longer, healthier lives, so find ways to help others. And, don’t forget to enjoy some chocolate and send a few Valentine’s Day cards.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.