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The heart is a complicated organ

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We know today that the heart is a complicated organ, and that a surprising number of one's life choices have an impact on its health.

Adam
Johnson

In 1963, Lyndon Johnson became our first president to designate February as "American Heart Month." At the time, heart disease accounted for over half of all annual deaths in the United States. President Johnson noted in his proclamation that "over one-half of the 10 million Americans afflicted by the cardiovascular diseases are stricken during their most productive years, thereby causing a staggering physical and economic loss to the nation."

Johnson -- who himself would die of a heart attack at the age of 64 -- knew that we could only begin to fight heart disease by starting a national conversation about its dangers, its prevalence, its underlying causes and risk factors.

Every year since Johnson's first proclamation, U.S. Presidents have declared February "American Heart Month" and urged Americans to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. This decades-long conversation has helped inspire millions to pay closer attention to health and has arguably contributed to our increased life expectancy. However, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for one in three deaths nationwide. The conversation continues. We know today that the heart is a complicated organ, and that a surprising number of one's life choices have an impact on its health.

What is heart disease?

Cardiologists define heart disease as a range of conditions that affect the heart's ability to function properly. This includes diseases of the cardiovascular system as well as the heart itself. The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, characterized by the buildup of fatty deposits called "plaque" in the arteries that feed blood to the heart. Narrowed arteries can result in inadequate blood flow to the heart, leading to chest pain, fatigue, dizziness, or shortness of breath. Other symptoms might include a feeling of numbness in arms or legs, pain in the neck, jaw, throat, or back. A heart attack occurs when an artery becomes completely blocked.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of heart disease is that it can progress over decades without noticeable signs or symptoms. Often people are not aware that they have a problem until they experience a frightening coronary event. The good news is you can start acting now to improve your heart health and reduce your exposure to risk factors.

Check your blood pressure

A low blood pressure is one of the most reliable signs of a healthy heart. If your blood pressure reading is below 120/80, you can consider yourself in the "heart healthy" camp!

Anything higher means that you are at risk for hypertension. A reading over 130/90 means that you are at risk for a coronary event. If your blood pressure is high, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.

Pay attention to diet

Avoid foods that are high in fat and cholesterol. Limit your intake of red meat, heavy sauces, butter and other fatty or oily foods. Limiting salt in your diet will help keep your arteries healthy and blood pressure low. Most processed packaged foods, such as microwaveable meals and potato chips, include high amounts of sodium. Instead of eating another bag of potato chips, turn to natural, high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables.

Quit smoking

Smoking causes many health complications and greatly reduces life expectancy. In addition to numerous types of cancer, smoking is also a major cause of stroke and heart disease.

Exercise

For older adults, simply engaging in light physical activity like gardening or walking has been shown to have positive effects on heart health. More strenuous exercising also improves cardiovascular health. Be aware of your physical limitations and consult with your physician if you are nervous about your fitness level.

Pray with others in mind

A common thread that runs through many Christian prayers is concern for the well-being of others. People who pray regularly in this vein are likely to feel healthier physically and spiritually. Both prayer and altruistic behavior reduce stress -- so why not combine them? An often-cited study funded by the National Institute of Health found that those who prayed regularly were 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure. A report in Psychology Today stated that concern for others "seemed to be contributing to the stress-buffering effects of prayer." Many other studies have linked prayer and altruism to clearer thinking, lower blood pressure and reduced stress (stress is a significant risk factor for heart disease).

The heart is clearly a complicated organ! As we've seen, it responds to physical exercise, diet, and even spiritual practices. This month, try incorporating all of these elements into a heart-healthy lifestyle that works for you.

ADAM JOHNSON WRITES FOR YOUVILLE ASSISTED LIVING RESIDENCES, MEMBER OF COVENANT HEALTH SYSTEMS, A CATHOLIC, MULTI-INSTITUTIONAL HEALTH AND ELDER CARE ORGANIZATION SERVING NEW ENGLAND.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

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