February means Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and hearts, chocolate and sentiments of love are nearly inescapable at your local grocery store. Since hearts are already on everyone’s mind, what better time to talk about heart health? Dr. Bobbie Paramsothy of Pacific Medical Centers shares some myths, tips and preventive measures that can help you show your heart a little love this February.
People may be lulled into a false sense of security if no one in their family has a history of heart disease, says Paramsothy. If you have other risk factors (see below), you are still a candidate for heart disease, even without a family history. On the flip side, people who eat well and exercise may consider themselves safe, but there can be a strong genetic component. “Although exercise and a good diet decrease your risk significantly, if you have a strong family history of high cholesterol or early heart disease, you may still have an increased risk,” she says.
Another common belief is that heart disease is an issue for older people. Not so, says Paramsothy. “We are seeing an increase in heart disease and even heart attacks in young people due to premature heart disease.”
Those at the highest risk are people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes, plus smokers and individuals with a family history of premature heart disease. However, she warns, “poor diet, physical inactivity and obesity increase the risk.”
Tips for a Healthier Heart
If you fall into the at-risk category, Paramsothy recommends several steps you can take such as losing weight, eliminating fast food and cigarettes, adding vegetables and fresh fruit to your diet and getting regular exercise. “See a health provider to get your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol checked,” she adds. “Although a healthy diet and exercise decrease your risk of heart disease significantly, sometimes they are not enough and you may need medication.” If you are at significant risk for heart disease or don’t normally exercise, she also advises that you consult a health provider before starting a rigorous routine.
Stress and trauma can also play a role. A recent study (Sumner et al. Circulation, June 2015), involving the Nurses’ Health Study II, demonstrated that women who had experienced a traumatic event during their life had a 45% higher risk of heart attack or stroke compared to those who had never experienced a traumatic event. “If you are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression, seeking mental health expertise is important for your overall health and heart health,” says Paramsothy.
Finally, friendships and social connections are important. Paramsothy cites another study (Valorta et al. Heart. April, 2016) that found that people who were lonely or socially isolated had a 29% higher risk of heart disease and a 32% risk of stroke. “All human beings need social interaction to thrive,” she says. “Seniors are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, so addressing those issues is an important public health concern.”
As you pass by all the hearts in the grocery aisle, let them be a reminder to take care of your heart health, consult a physician as needed and stay connected with the important people in your life this Valentine’s Day.