February is known for hearts. And I’m not just talking about the candy hearts with quirky sayings. February is American Heart Month. It has been around for a while—since LBJ signed it into existence in 1964—and incidence of heart disease has decreased since then, when it was causing over half the deaths in America.
Today, cardiovascular disease (or CVD, which encompass heart disease as well as strokes) is still the leading cause of death. Estimates guess that someone dies of CVD every 40 seconds. While the causes vary from person to person, anyone can reduce their risk. Here are some of the key ways in which those most at risk can work towards a healthy heart.
1. Quit Smoking
Tobacco avoidance is the number one way to protect your heart, your blood vessels, and health in every way. As the top controllable risk factor for heart disease, quitting smoking should be a priority for those at risk.
2. Slim Down & Increase Soluble Fiber Intake
Excess belly fat has been linked to higher blood pressure and blood lipid levels. It’s definitely easier said than done, but cutting calories and finding ways to move more are great initiatives to take for American Heart Month. One idea? Start eating salsa—it’s rich in antioxidants—with black beans. Diets high in soluble fiber can lower levels of *bad* cholesterol. Other good sources include oats, barley, apples, pears, and avocado (guac for the win).
3. Laugh (Literally)
A child laughs 300-500 times in one day. The average adult? Fifteen times. Seriously. The magic of laughter is real. Laughing more can lower stress hormones, decrease inflammation in arteries and raise levels of *good* cholesterol.
4. Keep Yourself Busy
Find a hobby that effectively helps you to de-stress. Activities that engage the full brain, like knitting, jigsaw puzzles, or crosswords are ideal to help the mind unwind and relieving stress that affects your heart. Or, to go along with number two, take up Zumba or some other aerobic exercise that not only occupies your mind but burns calories, too.
5. Avoid Salt
According to the New England Journal of Medicine: cutting our daily salt intake, by just ½ a teaspoon, would drastically affect the number of people who develop CVD. Processed foods and restaurant-prepared foods tend to be especially high in salt, so take a few minutes to research your food options (or just prepare meals at home).
6. Stay on Top of Your Numbers
Consider tracking your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides against the optimal levels for your gender and age group. Yes, we know it’s not super convenient to trot into your doctor’s office on a regular basis to do this, but there are plenty of home tests available out there. Take the steps to reach those optimal levels in American Heart Month.
A healthy heart does not come easily, especially if some of these habits are deeply ingrained. But taking preventative measures now can lead to fewer problems down the road, possibly averting a major medical event.