Achy Breaky Heart
When I think about February, I think about Valentine’s Day. Commercially, Valentine’s Day has been represented by hearts—lots of them. These hearts are usually shades of red or pink but can be other colors too. This symbolization of love is powerful. It represents deep emotion and the core of our being. And while technically emotions may originate in our brain, the heart clearly plays an essential role for our bodies.
I know when I have felt deep emotion, whether it be love or loss, I feel it in my heart. Even now, when I think about the loss of my grandmother, I feel it in my heart. Likewise, when I think about my deep, unconditional love for my children, I feel it in my heart.
Aside from “just” those feelings, though, the heart, physiologically, is one of the most crucial structures of the body. Without a heart, we cease to function. That’s why heart health is so important. Perhaps, in December 1963, when President Lyndon Johnson declared February 1964 as the first annual “American Heart Month,” it was done purposefully since the heart was already a powerful symbol linked to that month.
So, what can we do to take care of the heart? This is a complicated question that perhaps requires a complicated answer. There are many diseases of the heart and its associated structures.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects about 36 percent of Delaware adults. If left untreated, high blood pressure can hurt the heart and arteries. Treating high blood pressure with medications is common, but there also are other ways to help manage it. Having a blood pressure cuff and taking readings daily can help anyone dealing with high blood pressure (and their doctor) to identify patterns.
Identifying times of the day, foods that we eat, and times of stress can help us manage our lifestyle and control our blood pressure. This is such an effective method, there is even a free program available to teach self-monitoring blood pressure and lifestyle change to anyone who has been diagnosed with high blood pressure. For more information, visit healthydelaware.org or call the Delaware Diabetes and Heart Disease Prevention and Control Program at 302-744-1040.
High cholesterol is also a very common condition affecting the heart. About 35 percent of Delaware adults reported having high cholesterol in 2019. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol is usually treated with medicine. But high cholesterol, like high blood pressure, also can be treated with lifestyle and diet changes. For example, one fairly easy way to lower cholesterol is to increase fiber intake. Products like Metamucil and Benefiber have touted their ability to reduce cholesterol.
I have struggled with high cholesterol for almost 20 years. During that time, when I have increased my fiber, usually by adding a supplement, my total cholesterol reading is almost always better.
But high cholesterol is not just about the total. The ratio of bad cholesterol to good cholesterol is key. The low-density lipoprotein, LDL, can be renamed the “bad” cholesterol. That number, ideally, should be less than 100mg/dL. The high-density lipoprotein, HDL, can be renamed the “good” cholesterol, and ideally should be more than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women.
Managing cholesterol and blood pressure are the two most effective ways to prevent more serious conditions such as angina, heart attacks, or strokes. Strokes occur when a blood vessel carrying oxygen to the brain is either blocked by a clot or ruptures. Serious heart conditions and strokes can prove debilitating; some are fatal.
Clearly, preventing them to begin with is the preferred strategy! And lifestyle change is a great way to help manage all chronic diseases, including those conditions that affect the heart. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing salt intake, and limiting animal fats can all have a big impact on our health, and ultimately enable us to live longer, healthier lives.
Another strategy: managing stress is a key component to living a heart-healthy life. Finding a routine that allows us to decompress and manage our daily stress can be key to having a healthy heart. Some people find meditation, yoga, or tai chi to be effective activities. Others enjoy a long walk, alone or with a companion, to be relaxing. Yet others find engaging in the arts to be a great stress reliever.
Whatever activity helps you, make sure it’s a priority. After all, living a life full of love and laughter requires a healthy heart. So, this February, I’ll be giving my Valentine lots of hugs, and maybe making a heart-healthy breakfast of oatmeal.
For more information about cardiovascular diseases or to explore programs available to Delaware residents, visit the Delaware Division of Public Health’s Diabetes and Heart Disease Prevention and Control Program at: dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/dpc/diabetes.html. ▼
Stephanie Belinske is an epidemiologist and a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University.