By: Jennifer Heiligman, PT, MPT
Beginning in 1963, February has been celebrated as American Heart Month. This campaign was created to raise awareness of the prevalence of heart disease and ways that it can be prevented. It is estimated that every year 630,000 Americans die from heart disease. Heart disease does not discriminate. It affects every age, gender, and ethnicity. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men. But, the good news is, the risk for heart disease can be greatly reduced by making lifestyle changes. As healthcare providers, we can help to educate our patients (and ourselves) on how to get and stay heart healthy.
The primary risk factors of heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being a current smoker or having a history of smoking, physical inactivity, excess body weight, diabetes or pre-diabetes, age and family history. The more risk factors you have increases your risk for heart disease. Some of these factors cannot be changed, for example family history or age. However, many of the others can be modified.
Many people may not be aware that they have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. One of the first steps that should be taken is to meet with your healthcare provider and have these items checked. If either of these numbers are high, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes or even prescribe medication.
If you are a smoker, QUIT! Smoking increases your blood pressure, raises your risk for blood clots and stroke, and increases the levels of cholesterol in your blood. All of these contribute to heart disease. When you stop smoking, your heart rate and blood pressure lower almost immediately. Your blood will thin, reducing the risk of having a clot and/or stroke. Most astonishing is the fact that your risk of having a heart attack will decrease within 24 hours of quitting. Speak to your doctor if you feel you may need help to quit smoking. In addition, check for support groups in your community. Having the support of others going through the same trials can help you be successful.
Excess body weight and diabetes or pre-diabetes can be modified by eating a heart healthy diet and increasing your physical activity. Choosing a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein is good for heart health. You should stay away from foods that contain a high level of sodium, high saturated and trans fats and added sugar.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has established guidelines for physical activity. It’s important to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program to be sure you are healthy enough to participate. Per HHS, for substantial health benefits, an adult should complete at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes (2 hours 30 mins to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity a week. If the activity is considered vigorous then at least 75 to 150 minutes (1 hour and 15 mins to 2 hours and 30 mins) should be completed weekly. Aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week. For added health benefits, muscle strengthening exercises for the entire body should be included at least 2 days per week. While this may sound like a lot, set these timeframes as goals to work up to. Keep in mind that any amount of moving more and sitting less throughout the day will give you some health benefits.
In the past, heart disease was thought to be a disease affecting men more so than women. However, heart disease is also the number one killer of women. The National Wear Red Day was established to increase awareness that staying heart healthy is just as important for women as it is for men. This day is celebrated every year on the first Friday in February. The campaign helps people recognize that heart attacks may present differently in a woman than a man. Symptoms a woman may experience include fatigue, vomiting, nausea, shortness of breath, and pain in the back, arm, neck or shoulder. In addition, women under the age of 50 are twice as likely to die from a heart attack as men in the same age group. This could stem from the false belief that women are less affected by heart disease than men. In 2022, National Wear Red Day is Friday, February 4th.
American Heart Month is important because it reminds us to take care of our hearts and raises awareness of heart disease. As health care professionals this gives us an opportunity to promote heart health education to our patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has resources available to help educate your patients. These can be found in the American Heart Month Toolkits 2022. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH) also has resources and fact sheets available for provider use. Heart disease affects almost everyone. Let’s raise awareness to help people protect their heart and stay healthy!