The Heart of the Matter

Happy elderly woman making a heart sign with her hands

February is all about the heart! In addition to celebrating love and romance, it is also American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about cardiovascular health. About one in five deaths in the U.S is due to heart disease, which makes it the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups. Prevention is key – and thankfully, there are many ways to reduce the risk of heart disease.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease, also called coronary heart disease, is when plaque builds up and starts blocking arteries; it can cause stroke, heart failure and attacks, and peripheral artery disease. Smoking is a high-risk factor for heart disease, as are several health conditions:

  • High blood pressure is exactly as it sounds: The pressure in arteries and other vessels is too high. Termed the “silent killer,” high blood pressure has no obvious symptoms and can only be diagnosed by measuring it.
  • High cholesterol level occurs when a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver accumulates in the walls of the arteries and heart. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is called the “bad” cholesterol because it can cause plaque buildup in your arteries. Like blood pressure, there aren’t symptoms associated with high cholesterol and it must be measured through a blood test.
  • Diabetes causes sugar to build up in the blood. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart.
  • Obesity is excess body fat and is tied to increased levels of “bad” cholesterol. In addition, high blood pressure and diabetes are often associated with obesity.

What are ways to protect heart health?

A heart-healthy lifestyle starts with what we put on our plates and how we stay active. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins (like fish and chicken) can significantly contribute to cardiovascular health. Limiting alcohol, reducing red and processed meats, and cutting down on refined carbohydrates and sugary treats also help. Studies have shown such eating habits can reduce the risk of heart disease by 31%.

Regular exercise is equally important for heart health. Any amount of exercise can be effective, and, for most people, a brisk walk for 30 minutes will do. Sitting time has been associated with increased heart disease risk regardless of the amount of time spent in leisure-time physical activity; research has also demonstrated that people with a sedentary lifestyle have a greater chance of dying earlier than active folks.

Regular health check-ups are the cornerstone of overall preventive healthcare. Because conditions like high blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol may not present any symptoms, it’s critical to visit a medical provider for tests. Check-ups not only detect potential issues early, but also allow for proactive planning, especially if there is a family history of heart disease.

This February let’s show some love to our hearts. American Heart Month encourages us to learn the risk of heart disease and commit to improving our wellbeing. Because the best Valentine’s gift is ensuring a future for you and those you care about.