You use it every single day, without thinking twice. It allows you to run faster; it lets you know when you’re on a first date that could lead to something bigger; and it races to make you pay attention to your body. Yet, before there’s a real reason to worry about our hearts, most people, frankly, don’t worry at all. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of mortality in the developed world. This includes heart attacks, strokes, and all of the complications that result from these problems. So it’s vital to optimize the health of our heart.
As Dr. Robert Segal, co-founder of LabFinder, notes, our hearts have been beating away before we were born, and will continue to work until the very last second. “When it stops working as it should, your body’s essential functions also stop working and sometimes, instantly. In a person’s average lifespan, the heart will beat 2.5 billion times, so it’s important to take care of your heart to make sure that it beats for more than that,” he explains.
Most of us don’t think about heart health nearly enough, especially before a certain age. But you should start thinking about it sooner than you probably realize. Here’s what you need to know to keep this essential organ in tip-top shape.
So, what is heart health?
You feel your pulse, so you’re good, right? Not exactly, according to Interventional Cardiologist Dr. Victor Sein, DO. He explains that, as a term, ‘heart health’ involves the comprehensive function of the cardiovascular system. This includes our heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Those with an A+ grading will have a strong and flexible heart with normal valves, and a circulatory system that functions well, Dr. Stein explains. Believe it or not, heart health also includes having a healthy body weight, since that minimizes our risk of developing heart problems.
When do I have to start to pay attention to mine?
“You should always be considerate of how you’re treating your body,” Dr. David Greuner says. However, age has a way of changing our focus, and making us a tad more responsible with check-ups and visits, as we feel those aches and pains more frequently and intensely.
You should see a trusted physician regularly, but Dr. Sein says that anyone over the age of 30 should be paying attention to their heart. It’s often in this decade that physical activity starts to decrease and bad habits tend to take hold. Your doctor can make sure that you’re adopting the right habits to keep you on track.
As a special note, if you have a family history of heart disease or risk factors including high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes, you should start seriously thinking about your heart health in your 20s.
How can I keep my heart healthy?
To ensure that you’re giving your heart the TLC that it deserves and requires, there are preventive ways to set yourself up for success. If you’re not doing these, it’s time to start.
Sure, we can all give into a sweet or salty craving on special occasions, but overall, a balanced diet with appropriate portion sizes is one of the best weapons against heart issues. “Focus on eating lean proteins, lots of dietary fiber, sufficient amounts of healthy fat, and decreasing saturated fat, as well as fried and heavily processed foods,” Dr. Sein recommends.
Dr. Segal also says that it’s important to choose heart-healthy foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fish, healthy nuts, and fruits. “If you don’t eat well, the arteries of your heart can be blocked and, in turn, will require your heart to double the work just to get its regular output,” he warns.
Work out frequently.
Dr. Sein shares that doing at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity three days a week is very important—if not mandatory—for cardiovascular health. “Try to maintain a heart rate that’s about 180 minus your current age, to stay in the aerobic zone. Resistance training is also important, for body composition and for muscle development and maintenance,” he adds.
Evelina Grayver, MD FACC, director of the Coronary Care Unit at North Shore University Hospital, says that reducing your stress sounds easy to do, but is probably one of the hardest tips anyone can give their patient. Even though doctors know anxiety can cause inflammation in our bodies—especially our arteries—it’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription. However you find your zen, whether from yoga and meditation or a hobby—Dr. Grayver says to keep at it.
Don’t smoke and limit drinking.
Both smoking and secondhand smoking are dangerous for your heart, according to Dr. Greuner. He explains that research indicates that your risk of developing heart disease is 30 percent higher if you’re frequently exposed to secondhand smoke. Because cigarette smoke emits chemicals that promote plaque buildup in our arteries, having it filter through our lungs is a big no.
Drinking is okay—but with all vices, it’s best in moderation. Dr. Segal says that boozing can raise your blood pressure and affect the heart muscles. Instead, enjoy a crisp glass of vino with your dinner, but hold back on a full bottle regularly.
Your heart is the center of your body and life. Keep it healthy and pay attention to your heart health by forming and keeping good diet and exercise habits and seeing your doctor at least once a year for an annual check-up.