Fall in Love with Heart Health

Fall in Love with Heart Health

This Valentine’s Day, there’s even more reason to celebrate being in a loving relationship. A new study confirms that men in happier marriages have lower cardiovascular risk factors than men whose relationships are struggling. The same is true for women: A study in 2014 showed that women’s heart health reflects the positive (or negative) state of their marriage.

No need to race to wedding chapel if you haven’t met your special someone. There are plenty of things that married—and unmarried—men and women can do to improve their cardiovascular health, according to Dwithiya K. Thomas, MD, FACC, and Medical Director of St. Luke’s Women’s Heart Center.

Q: What do you mean by “heart health”? Is that mainly preventing heart attacks?

A: Heart health, or heart disease, is an all-encompassing term that is used to describe many different heart problems. It can be used to describe blockages in the arteries that supply the heart—the plaque that puts someone at risk for heart attacks. In addition, it can also be used to describe structural heart problems that people are either born with or develop later on in life. Heart disease can also be used to describe electrical problems of the heart—leading to arrhythmias, or heart rhythm problems. Although some of these problems are not necessarily avoidable, the development of blockages to some degree is preventable. We, as cardiologists, focus a lot of our time and effort with patients to help avoid heart attacks.

Q: I can’t get to the gym for an hour every day, but I know exercise is important. What can I do?

A: The more we learn about exercise and its benefits to the body, the more we realize that the “hour at the gym” mentality is not always the best option. Apart from the time commitment, the repetitive stress on your joints from activities like the treadmill, elliptical, and stepper machines may have some adverse effects in the future for joint health.

If you look at the exercise regimens of current athletes, fitness trainers, and fitness enthusiasts, more of them partake in shorter workouts with a combination of interval training and muscle stretching and strengthening activities. Many of these experts report a leaner body physique along with improved health numbers like blood pressure, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels. (See “Let’s Move” for an interval workout you can do at home.)

Q: My family history is terrible. Am I doomed?

A: It is true that family history is a very important risk factor when it comes to heart disease and heart attack risk. It is one risk factor that is not modifiable.  But that does not mean that you need to “give up” and accept your fate. By living a healthy, active lifestyle with good control over blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, weight—and by not smoking—you can slow the rate of progression of the build-up of atherosclerotic plaque. A cardiac event that was supposed to affect you in your 40s-50s may be delayed to your 70s-80s with good control of your modifiable risk factors.

Q: Most people know about diet and exercise for heart health. What else matters?

A: Engaging a heart healthy diet and exercise program is definitely important to improving and maintaining heart health. There are, however, some additional behavioral modifications that are important. For instance, a healthy amount of sleep, keeping your mind active, and lessening stress in your life can also be very beneficial for not only your heart, but your overall body health. Practices like meditation and yoga can also help a person become more in tune with their bodies, improve the detection of early symptoms, and improve mind and body health.

Q: What sorts of tests or check-ups should people get
for their heart?

A: Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, affecting one out of every three women. Annual check-ups with a primary care doctor to detect risk factors like high blood pressure are a good idea. The age at which to get a cholesterol level, blood glucose level, and a baseline EKG is going to vary based on your individual risk factors. If you have not had this testing done before the age of 35, it is definitely time to get that information to optimize your cardiac risk. On the other hand, if you are having symptoms in the chest that are concerning, like chest pains, shortness of breath, or palpitations, it might be worthwhile to also consult with a cardiologist. At St. Luke’s, we also offer the Women’s Heart Center, where we screen for heart disease in women.

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