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Better habits improve heart health

By TAPAN BUCH, M.D., The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education
Posted 2/16/22

We all know February is home to Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, but it’s also American Heart Month.

In observance of it, we as medical providers should be doing everything in our …

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Better habits improve heart health

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We all know February is home to Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, but it’s also American Heart Month.

In observance of it, we as medical providers should be doing everything in our power to encourage our patients to adopt a healthier lifestyle to combat the effects of cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death in Western countries. While often genetic, cardiovascular disease can largely be attributed to unhealthy lifestyle and dietary patterns, so prevention has become paramount as a means of improving quality of life and reducing health-care costs.

When we think about the heart, we should imagine it as a house, with each of its four chambers representing four rooms that are guarded by doors (the valves), with pipes (arteries or veins) and electrical wires (circuitry) spanning throughout. Just like your house, if these parts malfunction or become blocked over time, the gradual wear-and-tear can eventually cause significant and potentially catastrophic damage. So, like a house, we need to repair those issues before they spiral out of control.

The leading cause of cardiovascular death in the United States is coronary artery disease, which in turn is caused by atherosclerosis, the deposition of fat, cholesterol and calcium inside the coronary arteries. These deposits cause plaque build-up, which ultimately blocks our coronary arteries and leads to ischemia (the loss of blood flow and oxygen to our heart muscle), causing heart attacks.

So, how can we prevent this? Well, we can start by adopting a healthier diet, which allows us to reduce plaque build-up while improving our overall heart health. Over time, better eating leads to lower bad cholesterol that protects us against blockages and lowers the risk of high blood pressure.

Over the past 15 years or so, scientific research has shown that Mediterranean and plant-based diets are healthier than traditional Western diets. This is largely because they cause less inflammation and the negative cellular remodeling and changes that come with it. Recently, major food suppliers and restaurants wisely have begun offering consumers more plant-based, low-sodium and low-fat options that are far healthier than red meat and heavily processed foods.

Today, all major physician and nutritionist guidelines recommend incorporating more whole grains and vegetables, particularly green leafy plants, into our diet, while limiting animal products. As a practicing vegan, I cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding harmful saturated fats and reducing the amount of sugar, sodium and alcohol we consume. It’s all about lowering the fat and increasing the fiber in our diet.

Of course, diet is just one part of the heart-healthy equation. We should also be investing in regular exercise, whether it’s weight training, running or even daily walks. And it’s essential to decrease the amount of stress in our lives. Practicing mindfulness through meditation and yoga, or simply participating in other activities that decrease your mental and physical stress, can lead to a healthier lifestyle.

If you need help achieving the right balance of exercise, diet and more, the Wright Center for Community Health offers the Lifestyle Medicine program, which focuses on the pillars of health: nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management, social connectivity and the avoidance of risky substances. Lifestyle medicine is not alternative medicine. Rather, it uses evidence-based strategies that demonstrate the value of lifestyle interventions on achieving and maintaining good health. The program enables health care providers to complete a thorough, patient assessment of current health habits and then introduce individualized treatment plans based on specific risk factors, such as weight management.

In addition, it’s extremely important to get a restful sleep every night because it provides the body with essential time to rejuvenate, recharge and restore itself to an optimal state. Insufficient, fragmented sleep contributes to increased strain on the cardiovascular system. Simple changes such as avoiding screen time prior to bedtime, or cutting off caffeine intake in the late afternoon can lead to a better night’s sleep. And, for those of you who experience excessive snoring, stop breathing during sleep, or feel fatigued despite a full night’s rest, you may have sleep apnea, so I would advise being evaluated by your family physician as soon as possible.

There is no question a healthy lifestyle is the key to long-term cardiovascular health. So, let’s make American Heart Month a good time to put some healthier habits into practice. Your heart will thank you for it in the long run.

Tapan Buch, M.D., MSc, is a post-graduate year-five cardiovascular disease fellow at the Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education.

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