Working for Your Health: Heart health

February is Heart Health Month, and here are some facts and tips to know.

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Here are some fun facts about the human heart gathered from health.clevelandclinic.org/fun-facts-about-your-heart:

  • The heart is an organ about the size of two clasped hands. It’s made mostly of muscle tissue that contracts rhythmically, to propel blood throughout the circulatory system.
  • Because our hearts have their own electrical supply, they continue to beat even when separated from our bodies.
  • They have four chambers that fill with fresh blood during each beat. Each chamber has its own function, either sending or receiving blood.
  • Your heart pumps 3 million gallons of blood throughout your body every year.
  • It usually weighs between 7 and 10 ounces. Endurance athletes often have hearts weighing a bit more.
  • To make room for your heart, your left lung is slightly smaller than the right.
  • Female heartbeats are faster than men’s by about eight beats per minute. Female hearts are often smaller, and must beat more to circulate a comparable amount of blood.
  • Runners have a 45 percent lower chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Our hearts are paradoxical. (See cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm.) The strength of our hearts is legendary. Marathon runners rely on their peak performance to carry them across distant finish lines. Free divers’ hearts continue doing their job as they descend to depths up to 600 meters on a single breath. And cardiac surgeons have reported being struck with awe upon observing their patient’s beating hearts during intricate surgeries. In another respect, they are frail, susceptible to disease, and when they malfunction, they can cost us our lives. Heart failure claimed the lives of about 695,000 people in 2021, 20 percent of them under the age of 65. Perhaps it’s this duality of resilience and frailty that lends the heart its archetypal fame, and define it as the organ from which love and emotion arise. (See bit.ly/Lancet_TheHeart.)

The symbolism of the heart is celebrated during February. It’s a time when many of us saturate our text messages with heart-shaped emojis, and exchange cards of affection and sweet treats with those for whom we care. Rallying on this, the medical field uses February to share important messages about ways to keep our hearts healthy, so they may serve us long into old age.

Despite the heart’s resilience, there is a lot that can go wrong. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and the greatest threat to every one of us. Damage can occur in the blood vessels (such as in coronary artery disease), in the heart muscle or the valves, or we can experience irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias). A few of us are born with congenital heart defects.

In the U.S., the most frequent type of heart disease is atherosclerotic coronary vascular disease (ASCVD). With it, the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle can become clogged with plaque (a calcified obstruction due to chronic inflammation). These clogged arteries may not be able to supply enough blood to meet the heart muscles needs. When this happens, people often experience chest pain (angina). If too little blood flows, the heart muscle can be injured. This is a heart attack (a myocardial infarction, in medical-speak).

Heart attacks are very dangerous. Twelve percent of people who have a heart attack will die from heart disease. Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and excessive alcohol use increase the risk of heart disease. Some families have higher risks as well because of inherited genes.

There is good news. There is a great deal you can do to reduce your risk of having a heart attack. These include:

Stop smoking. Smoking at least doubles your risk of a heart attack. (It also increases your risk of lung cancer by 25 times). So, don’t smoke, and stop if you do.

Know your blood pressure. High blood pressure dramatically increases both the risk of a heart attack and a stroke. High blood pressure (hypertension) is usually silent. Damage is done well before you may notice it. All people older than 18 should have their blood pressure checked at least once. People over the age of 40 should have it checked every year. High blood pressure is usually easy to treat.

Eat a healthy diet. Choose meals that are dominant in fresh fruit, vegetables, and lean protein such as fish or chicken. Olive oil, used throughout the Mediterranean, may help prevent the buildup of plaque in our arteries. (See pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34372670.) The type labeled as “extra-virgin” is the best because it comes from the first pressing of the olive, and is higher in anti-inflammatory properties. A healthy diet prevents obesity, which causes most Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes.

Exercise regularly. Exercise keeps the heart muscle strong, even expanding its size, and helps our blood vessels remain pliable. This makes it easier for the heart to pump. Both aerobic and muscle-building exercises can lower blood pressure over time. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking. Download their guidebook, “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,” at bit.ly/PhysActivityGuidelines.

If you’re new to exercise, begin gradually, and increase your activity over time. It’s always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before adopting a new exercise routine, especially if it’s strenuous.

Manage stress. Stress can raise blood pressure, and may lead to heart problems. Ways to mitigate stress include exercise, meditation, getting adequate rest, enjoying caffeine and alcohol in moderation, and limiting exposure to the news. Sharing laughter with others can lower stress and relax blood vessels.

Know your family history. Some heart problems can be passed from one generation to another through genes. If heart disease runs in your family, you may have a genetic predisposition. This is important for you and your doctor to know. The tests doctors order and the treatments they recommend can make a great difference for people with a genetic risk for heart disease.

Know the symptoms of a heart attack. Symptoms often include pain in the center or left side of the chest. It may feel like pressure, squeezing, or fullness. There may be discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arms, or shoulders. A victim may feel weak, light-headed, or faint; he or she may be short of breath, and experience sweating, nausea, and vomiting.

Heart attack symptoms sometimes go unnoticed, or are attributed to other things, especially in women. Women are more apt to feel extreme fatigue, be short of breath, have a fluttering feeling in the chest, and swelling in the feet, ankles, or legs. (See cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm.)

Finally, the older you are, the more you are at risk. Don’t dismiss chest pain as “just indigestion,” or excessive fatigue after a walk as “just being tired.” Check it out. The diagnosis of heart disease is your doctor’s job. Your job is to let them know your symptoms.

If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911. You don’t want to be behind the wheel if you have a problem. Your family member is not an emergency responder who could immediately help you if you do.

Give yourself, and those you love, the gift of your own good health by following these simple guidelines. And if you know someone whose heart health has you concerned, sit down with them and share your thoughts. Heart-to-heart talks are the best kind.