‘I’m a Cardiologist, and These Are My 6 Tips for Protecting Your Heart Health at Any Age’
Whether you're grabbing a coffee, sleeping in, or hitting the gym, you probably don't think much about all the work your heart is putting in just to keep you moving. After all, it's pumping blood to every corner of your body whether you're conscious of it or not. But just because you don't think about it, doesn't mean it's not important. Quite the opposite, actually.
"Your heart is the most vital organ in your body, and it's essential that you take care of it. But let's face it, do we really understand how heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.? Meaning many of us will confront it on a personal level at some point in our lives," says Ella Dove, senior director of creative development at Well+Good, and host of the most recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast, which is all about—you guessed it—heart health.
Listen to the full podcast here:
Dove sat down with cardiologist Jenn Haythe, MD, an associate professor of medicine in cardiology, associate director of the adult pulmonary hypertension program, and the director of the cardio-obstetrics program at Columbia University, to talk through exactly what it means to have a healthy heart. Dr. Haythe, who specializes in heart failure, cardiac transplant, pulmonary hypertension, women's cardiovascular disease, and cardio-obstetrics, stresses that the earlier you start to invest in and protect your heart—the better.
How to start protecting your heart health
Here are Dr. Haythe's six tips for taking care of your heart health at any age, whether you're in your 20s, 40s, or beyond.
1. Work movement into your life in some way
To start, Dr. Haythe acknowledges that people can put a lot of pressure on themselves to be "healthy," but that means different things to different people, and also depends on whether you have a disability, your socioeconomic status, your geographic location, race, culture, and more. For example, it can be hard to stay on top of your heart health if you don't have adequate medical insurance or your insurance doesn't cover a specialist visit. It can also be difficult to move more if you don't live in a place where walking is an easy way to get exercise.
That said, Dr. Haythe stresses it's best to start where you're at. You don't have to be hitting the pavement with intense daily exercise if that's not accessible to you. Just taking time to work extra movement into your schedule is important for your long-term well-being, since the data on sedentary lifestyles show that sitting for long stretches during the day has a negative impact on overall cardiovascular health.
2. Explore stress management
Dove mentions that stress can feel like one of the hardest "heart health" categories to control because life can just be downright stressful. When you add in the strain that stress can have on our physical bodies and important bodily functions, it can start to feel a bit overwhelming. Dr. Haythe agrees that this is one of the more difficult tips to follow, but says it's good to embrace those feelings instead of trying not to feel them. Another way to combat stress? Test out different relaxation strategies to find one that works for you. If meditation isn't it—that's okay, maybe deep breathing will be.
3. Seek treatment for mental health challenges
If your stress-busting techniques don't seem to be having any effect on your mental health and mood, it might be time to reach out to a professional, says Dr. Haythe. "If you're feeling stressed and anxious, and you can't get it under control, think about getting treated, there are a lot of medications that can help treat stress and anxiety," she says. She also recommends cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy to work through some of your thoughts and feelings.
4. Get serious about your sleep schedule
Sleep is one of the most important factors for your overall health, and that includes your heart, according to Dr. Haythe. She recommends getting really serious about the quality and duration of your sleep if you want to protect your heart long-term. Generally, adults should be getting at least seven hours of sleep every night, according to the Mayo Clinic.
5. Consider quitting smoking
Not all nicotine consumption is created equal. Chewing nicotine gum is a lot better for you than smoking or vaping, says Dr. Haythe. If you're looking for one place to start your heart health journey, quitting smoking and vaping is a really important step, she says.
6. Try to treat health concerns as early as you can catch them
"Blood pressure is something that can have a huge impact on your overall health, so I try to encourage patients to treat high blood pressure as soon as they can. I know people don't like to take medication, but treating high blood pressure in your early thirties is so much better than just ignoring it until it becomes really serious," says Dr. Haythe. Though it's worth noting that many people run up against barriers to care and inadequate care, which can make diagnosing and treating blood pressure at a younger age more difficult.
What to remember about protecting your heart health
Most people want to be good at protecting their heart health, but it can be hard to know what to do or where to start. Dr. Haythe reminds people that it doesn't have to be a million changes overnight, but just taking small steps in the direction of a healthier heart can have a lasting effect.
To hear more of Dr. Haythe's heart-healthy recommendations, check out the newest episode of The Well+Good Podcast here.
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