Along with Valentine’s Day, Cupid, flowers and chocolate, February marks American Heart Month. It is the perfect time to commit to a healthy lifestyle and make significant changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women.

It is estimated that 92.1 million US adults have at least one form of heart disease. By 2030, 43.9% of the US adult population is projected to have some type of heart disease. Heart disease refers to various types of conditions that can affect heart function. It may present itself as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease, stroke, or as a heart attack, just to name a few of the culprits.

The annual direct and indirect cost of “Heart Disease” and stroke in the United States was an estimated $316.1 billion in 2012 to 2013. This figure includes $189.7 billion in expenditures (direct costs, which include the cost of physicians and other professionals, hospital services, prescribed medication, and home health care, but not the cost of nursing home care) and $126.4 billion (indirect costs) in lost future productivity attributed to premature CVD and stroke mortality in 2012 to 2013.

What Causes Heart Disease?

Heart or cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and often can be attributed to the lifestyle factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis or narrowing of arteries. Smoking, along with poorly controlled hypertension (high blood pressure) are significant risk factors. Diabetes causes inflammation and irritation of the inner lining of the coronary arteries.

Over time, cholesterol in the bloodstream can collect in the inflamed areas and begin the formation of a plaque. This plaque can grow and as it does, the diameter of the artery narrows. If the artery narrows by 40% to 50%, blood flow is decreased enough to potentially cause the symptoms of angina.

Heart muscle that lacks adequate blood supply also becomes irritable and may not conduct electrical impulses normally. This can lead to abnormal electrical heart rhythms including ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. These are the heart arrhythmias associated with sudden cardiac death.

The Standard American Diet or SAD:

If you were to list the factors that increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, intestinal disorders – just about any illness – the standard American diet has them all:

High in animal fats

High in unhealthy fats: saturated, hydrogenated

Low in fiber

High in processed foods

Low in complex carbohydrates

Low in plant-based foods

The striking fact is that cultures that eat the reverse of the standard American diet – low fat, high in complex carbohydrates, plant-based, and high in fiber – have a lower incidence of cancer and coronary artery disease (CAD). What’s even sadder is that countries whose populations can afford to eat the healthiest disease-preventing foods, don’t. The United States has spent more money on cancer research than any country in the world, yet the American diet contributes to the very diseases we are spending money to prevent.

Let’s Get Heart Healthy!

Being as February Is “Heart Month” let’s consider some different approaches to becoming heart healthy in 2018.

It All Begins With The Diet!

Eating a plant-based vegetarian or vegan diet can be a healthy, exciting alternative to traditional meat-based meal planning. Obtaining proper nutrients from non-animal sources is simple for the modern herbivore. There is a wide variety of vegetarian/vegan-friendly meat/dairy/egg replacements currently on the market. Recipes are abundant on the Internet as well as in a variety of vegetarian cookbooks.

There really are no disadvantages to a herbivorous diet! A plant-based diet has many health benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. It can also help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, plus maintain weight and bone health.

If a vegetarian diet is well-planned and balanced, it can be just as nutritious, if not more beneficial to health, than a traditional diet. Obtaining the nutrients listed below from plant, rather than animal foods, eliminates much of the saturated fat and cholesterol found in a meat-based diet.

Kicking The Nicotine Habit

Smoking increases your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease because of the effects smoking has on blood vessels.  While a person is smoking blood pressure increases temporarily. Smoking is one of the first things doctors advise against when patients are diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help reverse heart and blood vessel damage and reduce heart disease risk. Quitting smoking is possible, but it can be hard. Millions of people have quit smoking successfully and remained non-smokers.

The toxins contained in cigarette smoke include arsenic, benzene, and formaldehyde, to name just a few noted by the American Lung Association. These chemicals can wreak havoc on the blood vessels throughout your body, lessen blood flow to the heart, and damage your heart muscle, says David Harris, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Ohio.

Lose The Weight and Lower The Numbers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 66 percent of American adults are considered overweight, and 32 percent of them are obese. If you lose between 5-10% of your body weight you reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Blood vessels. Losing weight reduces your heart’s workload, says Dr. Nukta. Blood vessels supply the heart with the blood it needs to keep pumping. As you shed pounds, there’s less fat lurking around and forming plaque that can build up and clog your coronary arteries, causing a heart attack. Reduce your weight, reduce your risk. “There is a direct relationship between a healthy weight and blood pressure. If you lose weight, you may be able to reduce your blood pressure medications or even eliminate them,” Nukta says.

Your belly. Fat around the belly and the heart are especially detrimental to heart health. A 2011 study published in the journal Cardiology found that even normal-weight people with a “beer belly” or “muffin top” and heart disease have an increased risk of death than those with differently distributed weight. And research shows that hidden fat around the heart may be an even bigger indicator of cardiac disease than the waistline.

Exercise- Get Your Groove On

Becoming more active can lower your systolic blood pressure — the top number in a blood pressure reading — by an average of 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). That’s as good a result as some blood pressure medications. For some people, getting some exercise is enough to reduce the need for blood pressure medication.

But to keep your blood pressure low, you need to keep exercising on a regular basis. It takes about one to three months for regular exercise to have an impact on your blood pressure. The benefits last only as long as you continue to exercise.

According to “The Department of Health and Human Services” it is recommended that you get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week.

If you can’t set aside that much time at once, remember that shorter bursts of activity count, too. You can break up your workout into three 10-minute sessions of aerobic exercise and get the same benefit as one 30-minute session.

Also, if you sit for several hours a day, try to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting. Research has found that too much sedentary time can contribute to many health conditions. Aim for five to 10 minutes of low-intensity physical activity — such as getting up to get a drink of water or going for a short walk — each hour. Consider setting a reminder in your email calendar or on your smartphone.

Heart Disease is the number 1 killer in the United States, but it does not have to be. With proper nutrition, exercise, weight loss, and healthy lifestyle choices, heart disease and be prevented, arrested, and reversed. So with this month being “Heart Month” isn’t it time we start to listen to ours? With so many ways to improve our health and avoid heart disease let this month be a new beginning for each of us.

Have an idea for an upcoming article? We would love to hear from you. Contact me, Eli, at [email protected] 

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