In light of February and American Heart Month, Dr. John Carson Rounds with Avance Care Midtown in Charlotte is sharing his thoughts, advice, and recommendations below on how we can all show our hearts some love this month and for the rest of our lives.
In December of 1963, after a request from Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first proclamation declaring February as American Heart Month. Not long after that, on January 11, 1964, his Surgeon General, Luther Terry, MD, issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. Among the findings in the report were a link between smoking and heart disease. Every President since Johnson has continued to proclaim February as American Heart Month to bring attention and focus to heart disease. Despite this attention, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States.
How can we all show our hearts some love this month and reduce our chances of heart disease?
To me, the first step in showing your heart some love is just that – deciding you love yourself and your life enough to change your behaviors. We need a “Why” to change what we are doing. There are lots of things I know I should do, but I only do them once I find a true why. For me, the best motivator of changing my lifestyle to show my heart some love is the love I have for my family and friends. I want to be around, in good health, to see my children and grandchildren grow up, spend time with my wife, and enjoy the people in my life. Your why may be different, but without one, it will be hard to change what you do. In her book, Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead, Henna Inam notes, “To change any behavior we have to slow down and act intentionally rather than from habit and impulse.” It’s going to take a good reason to make that effort.
So – what should we do differently?
I think Michael Pollan has come up with the easiest diet advice I know: “Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” If you need a chemistry degree to understand what you are eating, it isn’t food. You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian, but your diet will be better for your heart if it is plant, not animal, centric.
A recent analysis showed a typical 20 year old eating a standard western (US and Europe) diet could add 10 to 13 years to their life expectancy by adding a cup of cooked beans daily (2 years), increasing whole grain intake from 50 to 225 grams of whole grains (2 years), a handful of nuts daily (1.7 years), 400 grams of fruit (about 1 apple and a cup of blueberries) add about 6 months, 150 grams of vegetables (about a cup and a half of broccoli) adds 4 months, and adding about 6 ounces of fish a day gets you another 6 months. Decreasing refined grains from 150 to 50 grams a day (roughly 3 slices of white bread down to 1) adds a year to our 20 year olds life expectancy. So does giving up sugar-sweetened beverages. As much as I love steak and charcuterie, eliminating them adds another 3 years to our life expectancy.
If you, like me, see the 20s as a distant dot in the rearview mirror, don’t give up. A 60 year old can increase life expectancy by about 8-9 years and an 80 year old as much as 3 years. Those years will also be marked by better health, fewer hospital stays, fewer medications, and way less heart disease. To help make sense of this nutrition advice, our offices offer consultation with an incredible team of nutritionists. Most insurance companies now offer some coverage for these services.
Develop a mindfulness habit and learn to regulate your stress levels without turning to food, tobacco, alcohol, or some of the other habits we get into to help us cope. There are online classes like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed at the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical Center by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s an 8-week online course. He’s also written several books that help us develop a mindfulness habit. We also have therapists in our offices who are excellent resources for learning this process.
It’s no surprise to any of us that we ought to stop smoking. While the statistics on vaping are still developing, it appears it is not a great way to show love to your heart, either. Knowing and doing aren’t the same thing. Work with your MD, DO, FNP, or PA to develop a plan to quit smoking. You can get help 24/7 from calling the NCQuitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Our therapists can also be a great resource for quitting.
There is a clear connection between physical activity (or lack therof) and heart disease. The London Bus Drivers study was published in 1953. They found that the sedentary drivers of London’s double-decker buses had higher rates of cardiovascular disease than the conductors who climbed the stairs and walked around the bus taking people’s tickets during their work day. You don’t have to become an athlete, but you do need to move at least 150 minutes a week.
Walking is a great way to reduce the risk of heart disease. If you find time a challenge, there is growing evidence that high intensity interval training is an acceptable substitute. Johnson and Johnson funded research that led ultimately to the development of an app that guides you through a 7 minute work out. You don’t need anything more than a chair to do this workout. It’s called, you guessed it, the 7 minute workout.
Maintain a healthy weight
Getting your waist circumference below 35 inches if you are male or 40 inches if you are female is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. There is a correlation with waist size and visceral fat, the kind that is most metabolically risky.
Get enough sleep
I don’t know about you, but if you are like most of us in the United States, you don’t get enough sleep. That increases your risk as well. Our bodies need rest to function at their best. Adults need 6-8 hours of sleep a night for optimal heart health.
For years, we’ve promoted daily aspirin as a preventive measure for heart attacks and strokes. It’s a little more complicated to make a blanket statement these days, and I’d recommend you review your individual situation with your primary care provider to determine the best course of action for yourself.
I hope you’ve come away from this with some ideas that you can put into action. You know yourself best. Some of us do better with incremental change. Others need big audacious changes to move forward. All of us will do better with change if we develop a community of friends and family.
Whether you choose incremental change or big audacious change, let us be part of your community and your partners in change. We love you and your hearts and want to keep them healthy and loved for a very long time.
To schedule an appointment with an Avance Care primary care provider and manage your heart health, visit here.