Why do we observe American Heart Month every February? Because more than 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year. One in four deaths in the U.S. are attributable to heart disease. It affects people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. People ages 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or develop coronary heart disease. Heart disease is also a major cause of disability, limiting activity and eroding quality of life for millions of older adults. To celebrate American Heart Month, let’s learn about the risks to cardiovascular health, the signs of heart disease, and the types of heart-healthy meals and activities that can help prevent them.
How the human heart works.
The heart is a muscle — a vital organ — that pumps blood throughout the body, supplying oxygen and nutrients and removing toxins and waste. It weighs between 8 and 12 ounces and is divided into four chambers. The chambers work together to pump blood in and out. The heart receives oxygenated blood from the lungs and pumps it to the rest of the body through arteries. It does this by contracting at a rhythmic pace, about 60-80 times per minute, thanks to electrical cells called pacemakers.
What happens to the heart as we age?
Aging can cause changes in both the blood vessels and the heart muscle itself. As we age, the heart can’t beat as fast during physical activity or times of stress as it did when we were younger. The most common change from aging is increased stiffness in the arterial walls called arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Stiffer valves can limit the flow of blood out of the heart and become leaky, both of which can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, legs, feet and abdomen. The chambers of the heart may increase in size. The heart wall thickens, so the amount of blood that a chamber can hold may decrease despite the increased overall heart size. These changes, along with the buildup of fatty deposits that impede blood flow, increase the risk of heart disease.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease occurs with the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaques, in the walls of the coronary arteries over many years. When plaque builds up inside the arteries, there is less space (stenosis) for blood to flow normally and deliver blood nutrients and oxygen to the heart. When this happens, cardiac muscle cells will die and weaken the heart, diminishing its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. If the flow of blood to the heart is completely blocked, or if a plaque suddenly ruptures (breaks off), a clot may form (thrombosis) and move to another part of the body (embolism) causing a heart attack.
What are the risk factors for heart disease?
In addition to advancing age, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and excessive use of alcohol increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease. Other factors, such as thyroid disease or chemotherapy, may also weaken the heart muscle. You can’t control some factors that might increase your risk of heart disease — like your family history — but leading a heart-healthy lifestyle might help avoid or delay serious illness.
How to keep your heart healthy.
You can take an active role in reducing your risk for heart disease by eating a healthy balanced diet, engaging in physical activity, managing your cholesterol and blood pressure, and doing what you can to reduce stress. Here are 9 heart healthy tips.
Have your blood pressure checked regularly, even if you’re healthy. Why? Age-related changes in your arteries can lead to hypertension. You may feel fine but untreated high blood pressure may result in stroke or problems with your heart, eyes, brain and kidneys. Exercise, good diet, and reducing salt intake can help manage high blood pressure, but medication — sometimes more than one — is often necessary.
Find ways to be more physically active now. Speak with your doctor about the type of activities that would be best for you. If possible, aim to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Every day is best. It doesn’t have to be done all at once, but realize, once serious heart problems develop, you may not be able to engage in physical activity at all. Start with something you enjoy — walking, dancing, gardening. Don’t spend hours each day just sitting.
Follow a heart-healthy diet. Choose foods low in trans and saturated fats, added sugars, and salt. We become more sensitive to salt as we get older, which can cause swelling in the legs and feet. Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods high in fiber every day. Drink plenty of water. Learn more about healthy eating here.
Heart-Healthy Recipe for Smoked Brisket and Chorizo Chili
- 1 jumbo yellow onion – medium dice
- 2 green bell peppers – medium dice
- 6 garlic cloves – minced
- 1lb. chorizo
- 2 lbs. smoked brisket – ¼” dice
- 1 #10 can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 16 oz. can kidney beans
- 1 16 oz. can pinto beans
- 1 tbsp. onion powder
- 1 tbsp. granulated garlic
- 1 tbsp. and 2 tsp. dark chili powder
- 2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 2 oz. tabasco sauce
- 3 oz. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tbsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 cup water
1. Start by cooking and breaking up the chorizo in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Drain off the grease and reserve 2 tbsp. Set the chorizo to the side. Add the 2 tTbsp. of grease back to the saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion, peppers and garlic to the pan. Saute for 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
2. In a large sauce pot, add the tomatoes. Crush or break up the tomatoes using gloved hands. Add the beans and all the vegetables from the saute pan. Bring the pot to a simmer.
3. Once simmering, add in the chorizo and the diced brisket. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add all the seasonings, including the tabasco and Worcestershire. Stir really well. Add in the cup of water and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.
4. Once finished, taste and season to your preference. Enjoy!
Keep an eye on your cholesterol. High blood cholesterol levels can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. A lipid profile will measure LDL (“bad” cholesterol), HDL (“healthy” cholesterol), and triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood that puts you at risk for heart problems. Your doctor will administer a test to check these levels in your blood.
Watch your weight. It’s a simple formula, but difficult to maintain over a lifetime — burn more calories than you consume. Limiting the portion size of your meals and being physically active helps, but for many, maintaining a healthy weight is a constant struggle. Keep at it for the sake of your heart. You can learn more about maintaining a healthy weight here.
Manage diabetes. High blood sugar from diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. Having diabetes doubles your risk for diabetic heart disease, which may come in the form of coronary heart disease, heart failure or diabetic cardiomyopathy. Get tested for diabetes, and if you have it, keep it under control.
Stop smoking now. Smoking adds to the damage to artery walls and is the leading cause of preventable death. Quitting now can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Eliminate stress. Your breath is a powerful ally that can help reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and stress on your body. Mindful breathing and meditation seem to delay reactions to stress, burnout and fatigue. Learn more about stress management techniques here.
Always get enough sleep. If you don’t, the risk of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes increases. These are three risk factors for heart disease. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. You can create a pleasant sleep environment by having a comfortable mattress and pillow and keeping the room between 60 and 67 degrees. The room should be completely dark and quiet. Try to eat your last meal of the day several hours before bedtime, and stop looking at electronic screens an hour before you turn in.
Look into the healthy lifestyle at Westminster Village
With options like aquatics, yoga, hearing loop technology, Rock Steady Boxing, art classes and treadmills with Wi-Fi, the Live Well Fitness & Rehab Center at Westminster Village incorporates 8 dimensions of wellness and makes leading a heart-healthy lifestyle fun. And if you have special dietary needs, our executive chef is here to serve.