February is American Heart Month, and there’s no time like the present to get serious about your heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but it is preventable with lifestyle changes, a healthy diet and physical activity. Here are some tips to help you keep your heart healthy.
What are the signs of poor heart health?
There are several ways to tell if your heart isn't as healthy as it could be. You may have shortness of breath, chest pain or a racing heart. You may also have trouble keeping up with the people around you when you're exercising. Other signs may require a visit to the doctor's office.
"A lot of [the signs]of poor heart health are lab metrics or vital signs that we look at, things like an elevated blood pressure, a high resting heart rate or weight that is more than the recommended amount for your age and gender, lack of physical conditioning or inability to do exercise that someone your age should be able to do, as well as abnormal cholesterol and glucose levels," says Dr. Alison Bailey, one of HCA Healthcare's national physician directors for cardiac disease and co-director of the Center for Heart, Lung and Vascular Health at Parkridge Health System in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “This is one of the many reasons having regular check-ins with a clinician is important.”
How does diet affect heart health?
Diet can either prevent or cause disease, Dr. Bailey says, and our daily choices determine the outcome.
"We've gone from giving very specific recommendations about diet components to giving more general recommendations that focus on overall healthy eating patterns," Dr. Bailey explains. "And it doesn't matter if it's heart health, or preventing cancer, dementia or kidney disease. The same diet does all of those things."
In general, a healthy diet should consist of:
- Whole foods
- Fruits and vegetables
- Fiber-rich whole grains
- Lean protein (low in saturated fat)
- Nuts and seeds
A heart-healthy diet should limit:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Red meat and processed meat
- Refined carbohydrates and processed foods
- Full-fat dairy
It's also important to avoid saturated and trans fats, Dr. Bailey says. "Dairy is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet. When you look at the amount of fat a food contains on a nutrition label, you see that it's further separated into saturated and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. When we talk about heart-healthy fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered heart healthy, but saturated fat is not and should be minimized."
Dr. Bailey adds that although food companies have started introducing plant-based options, they're not always as healthy as you would think.
"A lot of them use chemicals and coconut fat to simulate dairy fat, but coconut contains a lot of saturated fat," she says. "Just changing dairy for non-dairy doesn't always mean you're making a healthier option."
Maintaining a heart-healthy diet doesn't have to be difficult, Dr. Bailey says. "A good rule of thumb is to eat as close to nature as possible. So those beans actually look like beans or that corn actually looks like corn and is not ultra-processed," she adds. "And then include as many vegetables in your diet as you can because they have fiber, they're filling and they're low calorie."
Is there a link between mental health and heart health?
The heart and the mind are inextricably linked, and one can have a tremendous impact on the other.
"Individuals who suffer from cardiovascular disease are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and increased stress levels," Dr. Bailey explains. "We also know that when you have heart disease and experience these disorders, it is important to seek treatment. If these mental health disorders are left untreated, cardiovascular outcomes are worse. This is likely related to many things including adverse effects on lifestyle. For example, a patient with an untreated mental health disorder is less likely to follow exercise and diet recommendations. Biological factors like increased stress hormones can contribute to a poor outcome as well."
There are options to treat depression, stress and anxiety that don't require medication Dr. Bailey says, but it's important to talk to your doctor if you are having any of those symptoms, especially if you have heart disease.
"Depression is very common after a cardiac event. It’s important to recognize the signs of depression — not only sadness but things like irritability or loss of interest in activities — and recognize that there are many effective treatments. For instance, just coming to cardiac rehab helps treat depression. It's not a pill that you take, but it's a combination of exercise and a supportive environment that provides reassurance that things are getting better," she says.
Loneliness and social isolation can also affect cardiovascular health, although it is harder to measure than blood pressure or cholesterol. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all experienced this with most people not attending social gatherings as much as they did in the past. Studies have shown that there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with loneliness and social isolation but researchers are still learning why that happens.
“Research shows that individuals who attend a faith-based service four times per month will add four to 14 years to their life expectancy! We see reductions in not only heart disease but also cancer deaths,” Dr. Bailey says. "Part of that relates to the sense of community felt within a religious service. It's not just actively going to a service, it's that you feel like you're a part of something, and you have those connections."
Keeping your heart health in check
American Heart Month can be a good time to remind yourself that keeping your heart healthy doesn't have to be complicated. Dr. Bailey suggests finding an activity that gets your body moving, even if it's just for five minutes. If you smoke, consider quitting smoking, and moderate your alcohol consumption. And it's important to get good sleep and manage your weight. If you have questions about the best ways to keep your heart healthy, be sure to talk to your doctor.
Additionally, you could help save someone else’s life by learning hands-only CPR. When a person experiences a cardiac arrest, their survival depends on immediately receiving CPR. According to the American Heart Association, over 70% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen in homes. “That means if you ever need to perform CPR, it’s likely going to be for someone you love like your family or friends,” says Dr. Bailey.
Hands-only CPR is simple and requires only two steps: first, call 911 and then push hard and fast in the center of the person’s chest to the beat of popular songs like “Staying Alive.” Watch and share the AHA’s hands-only CPR instructional video.
You or anyone you know can learn more about your personal risk level for cardiovascular disease by taking our online assessment. It’s free and confidential, and there’s no further obligation.