February is all about the state of your heart — emotionally (Valentine’s Day) and health-wise (American Heart Month).
And it’s fitting because to truly enjoy one aspect of your heart, the whole thing has to be healthy. So, let’s talk about that.
Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US? Across genders and most racial and ethnic groups, nearly 700,000 people die from this disease each year. And in the winter, your heart is even more vulnerable.
To raise awareness of the importance of a healthy heart, here’s what you need to know about year-round prevention.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a general term that describes any condition that affects the structure or function of your heart. And contrary to the popular belief, heart disease isn’t only one condition. It’s actually many conditions that have a range of root causes.
For example, along with age and family history, here are common risk factors for developing heart disease:
- Poor diet
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol levels
- Poor dental health
Let’s check out some types of heart disease:
- Heart infection. Thiscan seriously damage the inner lining of your heart chambers and heart valves. This life-threatening inflammation is usually caused by an infection, bacteria, fungi, or germs from another part of your body that spread through your bloodstream and attach to damaged areas in your heart.
- Coronary artery and vascular disease. The narrowing or blockage of your coronary arteries — the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart — often caused by a buildup of fats and cholesterol in your arteries. This buildup can damage your blood vessels and heart, plus it’s a major cause of heart attacks and strokes!
- Abnormal heartbeats. Heart rhythm problems, also called palpitations and arrhythmia, cause your heart to beat either too slowly, too quickly, or in a jumbled way that disrupts blood flow. There are many types of heart rhythm problems— some have no symptoms or warning signs, while others are sudden and fatal.
- Heart defects you’re born with. There are arange of birth defects that affect the normal way the heart develops and works. Keep in mind that defects can also develop throughout adulthood as the structure of the heart can alter with age.
- Heart valve disease. Four essential heart valves (aortic, mitral, pulmonary, and tricuspid valves) direct blood flow through your heart. To do this right, the valves have to form properly, open all the way, and close tightly to prevent leakage. When they don’t, your heart valves sustain critical damage.
- Diseased heart muscle. This makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body, which can lead to heart failure.
Heart disease symptoms depend on what type of disease you have, but these are some common symptoms across the conditions:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain, tightness, pressure, and/or discomfort
- Swellings in your legs, ankles, feet, abdomen, hands, and/or areas around the eyes
- Weakness or fatigue
Protecting Your Heart in the Winter
Seasonal depression isn’t the only condition that increases during the winter — your risk of heart attack (and stroke!) does too.
To minimize your risk, consider these cardiologist-recommended acts of self-care this winter:
- Dress warmly. Wear layers, hats, gloves, heavy socks, and even a face covering if you need it.
- Take indoor breaks. If you’re spending time outside, take frequent breaks to warm up.
- Don’t shovel for long periods. You really want to get it done, understandably enough, but excessive exposure to colder temps places a lot of pressure on your heart. If you have risk factors for heart conditions, check with your doctor to see if you should shovel at all this winter. Listen to your body. If you’re shoveling and are getting chest pains or shortness of breath, stop immediately as this could be an important warning sign. Take a break and seek help and guidance from a healthcare professional or seek emergency services if it persists or worries you.
- Wash your hands frequently. You should do this anyway, but respiratory infections can also increase your risk of a heart attack.
Finally, don’t wait to ask for help. If you experience any symptoms of a heart condition, reach out for assistance ASAP.
Year-round Prevention for Heart Disease
Now that you have a better understanding of heart disease and how to protect yourself in the winter, let’s talk about prevention for the whole year.
1. Get moving
If you can exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week, great! It can be difficult to stick to a routine, but we can’t deny the benefits of regular exercise in lowering your risks of heart disease.
Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Plus, it strengthens your heart, improves your circulation, and reduces your chances of developing other conditions that can strain your heart.
If you’re jumping back into exercises, don’t feel the pressure to go all-in too fast. Take your time, and slowly work your way up to your desired fitness goals.
If you experience any unusual chest pain or shortness of breath that makes you concerned, seek help and guidance from a healthcare professional or seek emergency services.
Keep in mind that we all exercise differently. Plus, you don’t have to train like an Olympic athlete to maintain your health! You can simply take short walks, take the stairs over the elevator, pull some weeds, or even shovel your neighbor's walk. Even shorter bouts of physical activity offer heart benefits.
Here are some other daily activities to try:
- Aerobic exercises, like running or biking at a brisk pace
- Strength training or swimming at your local rec center
- Walking your dog
- Dancing to your favorite music
2. Don’t skip these key screenings
Lowering your risk for heart disease is all about managing risk factors, especially the big ones that can significantly damage your heart and blood vessels. Here are the heart-health screenings you can’t overlook:
- High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. Because it typically has no symptoms — AKA it can’t be detected without being measured — this is a critical screening. Blood pressure screenings often begin in early childhood, though from 18, the recommendation is to receive an annual screening or at least once every two years.
- High blood sugar can damage the nerves that control your heart. If you have risk factors for diabetes, like being overweight or a family history of diabetes, your health provider might recommend an early screening. Otherwise, begin screening at age 45, then retest every three years.
- High cholesterol builds up in your blood vessels, which can narrow your arteries and prevent sufficient blood flowing through. Unless you have risk factors, cholesterol screenings usually start at age 20, then you can get it measured every four to six years.
There’s only one way to know if you have these conditions and how to take action: Get screened. In the meantime, limit alcohol and smoking (they both raise your blood pressure and risk of heart disease!), and lead a healthy lifestyle that includes any recommendations from your doctor.
💡 Pro tip: Unmanaged stress can raise your blood pressure, and extreme levels can even trigger a heart attack. As you navigate your stresses, remember to cope with heart-healthy activities, like exercise, meditation, listening to music, or journaling. Anyone can do these anywhere. Plus, they’re free!
3. Eat a heart-healthy diet
Look, we’re not saying you can’t ever enjoy your favorite french fries or that perfectly cut steak, but it shouldn’t be a weekly splurge — that won’t make your heart happy.
Here’s what’ll protect your heart and improve blood pressure and cholesterol level, plus reduce type-2 diabetes risk:
- Added sugars → pastries or baked goods
- Processed carbs → white bread or white rice
- Saturated fats → red meat or full-fat dairy products
- Trans fats → chips or fried fast food
- Foods high in sodium → convenience food, like burritos and pizza
Increase in Moderation
- Vegetables and fruits
- Beans or other legumes
- Lean meats and fish
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy foods
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats, like olive oil or avocado