Heart disease can happen at any age, but by the time we reach our middle years, many of us can expect to be closely monitoring our blood pressure and cholesterol. That’s because the two are key risk factors in heart disease, and unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “About 659,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year — that’s one in every four deaths.”
Among Arkansans, the statistics are even worse. More than 40 percent of adults in the state have high blood pressure (a leading cause of heart disease and stroke), placing us as the fourth worst state in the country. These are certainly sobering statistics, but the good news is we do have a stake in our overall heart health. Even those with predispositions can improve their chances if they follow medical recommendations.
It may not be January any longer, but the year is still young, and it’s never too late for resolutions. In honor of February’s American Heart Month, let’s review some of the basics and commit to a healthier 2022.
The dos and don’ts
Lifestyle changes and medications go a long way in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease. Dr. Robert Schatz, a non-interventional cardiologist for Northwest Cardiology in Siloam Springs, shared some of the most important changes people can make toward better heart health. According to Schatz, “Controlling blood pressure isn’t about one thing a person does. There are many lifestyle changes that everyone can implement to optimize their chances of not having end-organ damage from poorly controlled blood pressure.”
He notes that some of these changes include:
• Eating a well-balanced diet
• Limiting alcohol
• Managing stress
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Quitting smoking
• Taking your medications properly
The CDC states that interventions that reduce risk factors such as high cholesterol, smoking and physical inactivity could prevent as much as 80 percent of heart attacks and strokes.
Healthy mind, healthy heart
Stress management has been associated with high blood pressure for a long time, but it may come as a surprise that overall mental health plays a big role in heart health. In 2021, a scientific statement was published by the American Heart Association titled “Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection.” The journal brought the idea forward that perhaps clinicians have been singling in on heart disease without looking at patients as a whole, and without paying enough attention to how psychological health can affect physical health and disease.
According to the report, “There is a substantial body of good-quality data showing clear associations between psychological health and CVD [cardiovascular disease] and risk.” The report infers that the mind, heart and body are all related. Since the three are interconnected, a disease that affects one component of the human body can also affect the other two. In the case of depression, for example, there could be physiological connectors in common. The biochemical changes that predispose some people to depression could also be responsible for their heart problems.
Some research suggests that daily stressors (work challenges, poor relationships, financial hardship) and traumatic stress (witnessing or experiencing a threat to safety) can negatively impact heart health. A study from 2011 showed that work-related stress was associated with a 40 percent increased risk of heart disease.
Stressful childhood experiences can also have far-reaching effects. Childhood trauma and psychological stressors have been linked to higher levels of metabolic risk factors later in life. PTSD was also found to be linked to a 61 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease.
On the other hand, positive psychological health (happiness, optimism, gratitude and mindfulness) is associated with cardiovascular benefits. Studies show that more optimistic individuals have approximately 10 percent longer lifespan and greater odds of living past age 85. Even when people have already been diagnosed with heart disease, those considered to be more optimistic showed a lower number of cardiac hospital readmissions. Plus, happy individuals tend to sleep better, exercise more, eat better and not smoke — all factors that are known to improve health.
The bottom line is there is a lot of research suggesting that interventions in mental health could benefit heart health. The American Heart Association suggests that “simple screening measures can be used by health care clinicians for patients with or at risk for CVD to assess psychological health status,” and that psychological health should be considered in the evaluation and management of patients with or at risk of heart disease.
If Schatz could only say one thing to his patients, he would say, “Care for your heart as if it were a big diamond, and never take it for granted because it’s a gift.”
Remember, there are many contributors to heart disease that are well under your control. Don’t smoke, and if you do — quit. Take charge of your mental health. If you feel anxious, stressed or depressed, make an appointment to see a counselor, and talk to your doctor about prescription options.
Be informed about your blood pressure and cholesterol. If they tend to be high, check your numbers regularly and stay on top of taking any medicines you’ve been prescribed. Maintain a healthy weight by eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly. Eat foods that are low in trans fat, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium. Try to fill at least half your plate with vegetables and fruits, and aim for low sodium options. Get moving for at least 150 minutes per week. You can even break up the exercise into 10-minute blocks for a total of 30 minutes in a day.
It’s OK to start your resolutions in February. Do it in honor of American Heart Month.