Cardiologists Explain Their Best Tips for Heart Health
Vital to all your other systems, your heart and blood vessels pump blood and oxygen throughout your entire body. So this February, during American Heart Month, we have a challenge for you: Do one thing per day that supports your heart health.
The best part: You may already be doing plenty to support your heart, you just don’t know it. We sat down with Indianapolis-based cardiologist Mohammad Marashdeh, M.D., and Jonathan Purnell, M.D., who leads Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Preventive Cardiology, to learn more about how we can support our heart health every day.
Dr. Marashdeh believes that the heart is the center of everything. “As a vital organ, heart disease or stroke can lead to sudden death or an extremely limited life due to constraints from heart disease,” he says. “I believe that not enough people are paying attention to how central their heart is to their well-being.”
To start paying attention, you can begin with Dr. Marashdeh’s heart health checklist:
1. Consider undergoing a heart risk test
Dr. Marashdeh says that all adults over 40 should undergo a risk assessment with their doctors called the ASCVD risk score. This test assesses all elements of your lifestyle, genetics, habits, and more to provide you with a calculated risk of heart disease in your lifetime. Your score will tell you how aggressively you need to work on your heart health, and whether you may benefit from statin therapy for high blood pressure. Why is this test so important? Because, said Dr. Marashdeh, heart disease can impact anyone. Many people may have underlying heart conditions they aren’t aware of, and they can impact you when you’re least expecting it in many ways — the most severe case being a serious stroke or fatal heart attack.
2. Think about your heart in relation to other health conditions
“A lot of people will say ‘I don’t have heart disease,’” said Dr. Marashdeh. “But do they have conditions like sleep apnea? High cholesterol? Is their weight a problem? What about diabetes? These are all considered risk factors for heart disease, and even if you’re not aware of a heart condition today, these factors can significantly contribute to very serious heart problems down the line.” Patients with risk factors or precursors to heart disease should get the ASCVD test as son as possible, along with adopting heart-healthy habits in their diet and exercise routines. “If early risk factors aren’t assessed in your 20s and 30s, they can very quickly ramp up to lead to heart disease at a very young age,” said Dr. Marashdeh.
3. Give your diet a heart health boost
For better heart health, Dr. Marashdeh suggests consuming a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and lean protein. Studies show that antioxidants from plenty of fruits and vegetables can have a protective impact on your heart and promote healthy circulation. Trans fat, red meat, processed meat, refined carbs, and sugar should be kept to a minimum. Dr. Marashdeh recommends focusing on incorporating healthy sources of potassium, like avocados and sweet potatoes, which both have more potassium than a banana (although there’s nothing wrong with eating bananas). And it’s a good idea to be conscious of your sodium intake, too.
Purnell suggests moving away from diets that focus on a single macronutrient, like “low fat” or “keto” diets, and instead adopting a more balanced eating pattern overall. He recommends eating foods that are grown locally and preferably are organic, because the nutrient content will be higher. Eating local is also better for community farmers and the climate, since food won’t need to be transported a significant distance.
4. Manage your stress — it could literally save your life
Dr. Marashdeh sees how many of his patients experience daily stress, and here’s what he wants you to know: Too much stress can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. Stress is serious, and it puts real strain on your body. Studies suggest that exposure to long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure — all of which impact your cardiovascular health. Many people tend to just accept stress as a part of their lives, but Dr. Marashdeh warns that nothing is worth sacrificing your heart health for. Managing stress can take a lot of different forms (we have a few suggestions), but no matter what you need to do, your health should come first.
5. Get some shut-eye
Did you know that sleeping less than six hours can literally raise your blood pressure the next day? Sleep makes that much of a difference for your health, and you should prioritize it just as much as a healthy diet and exercise. The American Heart Association says that lack of sleep contributes to heart-health busters like obesity, predisposition to diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Sleep is involved in many regulatory processes in the body, and without it, your cells and immune system simply can’t repair themselves the way they need to. Dr. Marashdeh recommends getting checked for sleep apnea if you struggle with sleep or breathing at night, because sleep apnea is closely linked to stroke risk. Here’s a statistic that’ll make you take your Zzz seriously: People who sleep less than 6 hours per night are at a 20% higher risk for heart attacks.
6. Hit that elliptical machine
We all know that exercise is great for our bodies, and Dr. Marashdeh wants you to know that it’s vital for heart health. He recommends at least 75 minutes of very vigorous exercise, like running or HIIT, per week, or 150 minutes of more moderate exercise, like lifting weights or walking. 150 minutes can sound like a lot, but think about it: that’s just about 22 minutes a day. You’ve got time for that. Exercise keeps the heart muscle strong and healthy, which improves circulation and oxygen output, while it reduces your risk for high blood pressure and stroke. Exercising can also help you feel more relaxed even when you’re at rest.
Dr. Purnell has noticed a new common cause of “sedentary lifestyle” in recent years — and it’s not what you’d expect. In the past, he said, a sedentary lifestyle was linked to video games and leisure activities like watching TV, but in 2022, one of the biggest obstacles to an active lifestyle is your job.
“Technology has changed our work environments to tie us to our stationary computer desks,” says Dr. Purnell. Many people who work remotely struggle to separate work from life, so stepping away from the computer is even more challenging. Taking frequent walks throughout the day, committing to a gym schedule, or even purchasing a treadmill desk can help you stay active — even while busy at work.
7. Be careful with the snow shovel
Quite possibly Dr. Marashdeh’s least common tip for heart health: If you’re over 45 or have a heart condition, you should avoid shoveling snow. Why? Because it can trigger heart attacks more than nearly any other winter activity. The cold raises blood pressure and constricts coronary arteries, and when paired with the intense motion of shoveling wet, heavy snow, this creates the perfect conditions for a heart attack or sudden stroke — even in people who are unaware they have a mild heart defect. In a study done about heart stress, results showed that shoveling snow put even more strain on the heart than running on a treadmill. Researchers called shoveling snow a “perfect storm” for creating conditions likely to cause a heart attack, so if you have any heart health risk factors, consider passing that winter chore off to someone else in the family.
To learn more about American Heart Month and ways to support your heart health, check out this toolkit.
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