Don’t limit your acts of love and kindness to Valentine’s Day. Share kindness with friends and loved ones every day. If you do, you are likely to be happier and healthier. That’s because research has shown that treating others with kindness (as well as being on the receiving end of kind behavior) is literally good for your heart, and one of many ways to reduce your risk for heart disease.
February is National Heart Month, a time of year dedicated to raising awareness of heart disease, and important preventative steps we can take. For years, heart disease has been the leading killer of both men and women in the U.S, causing more deaths than cancer, and costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
The good news is that there are steps each of us can take to improve our heart health. Since 1963, when Congress first designated February as National Heart Month, each President has issued an annual proclamation designed to get Americans focused on heart-healthy behavior. This year, President Obama stated that while heart disease is “one of our Nation’s most costly and widespread health problems, it is also the most preventable.”
What exactly is heart disease?
Heart disease is a general term that refers to various related conditions affecting the heart’s ability to function properly. The most common form is Coronary Artery Disease. In Coronary Artery Disease, cholesterol deposits known as plaque build up in the coronary arteries, constricting blood flow and often limiting the amount of blood delivered to the heart. This limited blood flow can result in heart failure or an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia). Sometimes the flow of blood is blocked off entirely, which can lead to a heart attack.
What We Can Do
We’ve come a long way toward understanding the causes of heart disease. From our dietary choices to the quality of our emotional lives, there are many factors that influence our cardiovascular health. Below are a few of the most important measures we can take to keep our heart healthy.
Check Your Blood Pressure
A low blood pressure is one of the best signs of a healthy cardiovascular system. This generally means a blood pressure reading below 120/80. Anything higher means that you are on the way to hypertension, and a reading over 130/90 means you are at risk for a coronary event. Have your blood pressure checked regularly by a doctor or at a local pharmacy. Talk to your doctor about ways to lower your blood pressure if it is too high.
Pay Attention to Your Diet
Avoid foods that are high in sodium. High-sodium food includes processed, packaged foods (like microwavable foods, salty potato chips) as well as most restaurant food. High-sodium foods increase blood pressure and narrow the arteries. Limiting salt in your diet will help keep your arteries healthy and blood pressure low. Instead of eating another bag of potato chips, turn to high-potassium foods like fruits and vegetables.
Smoking causes many health complications and greatly reduces life expectancy. In addition to numerous types of cancer, smoking is also a major cause of stroke and heart disease.
Limit Alcohol Use
Moderate use of alcohol, especially red wine, can be both enjoyable and even good for your health, but the benefits of drinking disappear as soon as you go beyond the limit of moderation. Excessive alcohol leads to high blood pressure. If you enjoy wine or beer, remember to protect your heart by drinking in moderation.
For seniors, simply engaging in leisurely activities like gardening, or walking has been shown to have positive effects on heart health. More strenuous exercising also improves cardiovascular health. Be sure to know your physical limitations and consult with your physician if you have any doubts.
Most of us know that sharing and receiving affection feels good, and that ties to others enriches the quality of our lives. Research has shown that strong relationships also promote cardiovascular health. Simply acting with kindness toward others and having good relationships with those around you greatly reduces stress, which
is a major risk factor for heart disease. Stress compromises our immune system, our coronary arteries, and our ability to regulate insulin. When we feel connected to others, our stress evaporates and our hearts are healthier.
This Valentine’s Day, do something for someone you love, and do something for yourself as well. Remember, the life you save may be your own.