February is Healthy Heart Month, a good time to make critical lifestyle changes. For Americans, heart disease is the number one cause of death and the risks are especially high for women. That’s the bad news. The good news is that everyone can make certain lifestyle changes to support heart health.
A good place to start is with a visit to the doctor. Everyone should know their basic numbers for blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Women particularly should learn the signs of heart problems because the symptoms are not the same as the symptoms for men.
Probably the most important lifestyle change anyone can make is to give up smoking. While only about 18 percent of Americans are still smoking, that number represents a little over 42 million people, enough to make smoking the leading cause of preventable death among Americans.
Conquering a smoking addiction can be difficult, but plenty of over-the-counter smoking cessation aids and a variety of programs are available to help. It is worth the effort. According to Dr. Deidre Mattina, a cardiologist at the Henry Ford Health System, most smokers die of heart disease well before they get lung cancer.
One of the easiest heart health lifestyle changes is simply making better basic diet choices. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, including berries, broccoli, lean meats and fish, red fruit offers some particularly tasty benefits. Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant, lycopene. Apples are especially good for reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and cranberry juice is especially good for increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
In addition to improving overall eating habits, consider getting a little extra exercise, too. Exercise lowers blood pressure, reduces bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol, just a little exercise produces good results. Walking briskly for two and a half hours a week or about half an hour a day is all that is needed.
Best of all, most people will lose weight fairly easily when they begin making healthy food choices and getting moderate exercise. Losing even a modest five to 10 pounds can reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol and improve heart strength.
Finally, every heart needs a good night’s sleep. Generally, everyone needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Anything less than six hours a night is actually dangerous, especially to women. A body that does not sleep must produce adrenaline and other hormones to stay wake which keeps blood pressure and heart rate high.
When it comes to heart health, fundamental lifestyle changes pay huge dividends in both longevity and quality of life. Those are significant rewards, but anyone who is so inclined can also reward themselves with a drink a day. Red wine has heart healthy antioxidants, but some evidence also suggests that a little alcohol increases good cholesterol and provides some protection against artery damage.
When it comes to heart health, lifestyle changes are the very best medicine, but lifestyle changes can be difficult. The most successful strategy is to start small, be consistent and build on success.
By Sharon I. Fawley