10 Things You Don’t Know About Heart Health, but Should

February is heart month, a time for us to learn more about heart health and hopefully make lifestyle changes that will protect our hearts. Our tickers are rather important, if the tick doesn’t tock then that’s it. While the euphemism might be cute, the fact that one in every four deaths in the U.S. in 2006 was because of heart disease, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women (per the CDC), is not something to take lightly.

“Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer,” per the American Heart Association. Andrea Metcalf, author of Naked Fitness, has worked with the AHA for several years, and often speaks at Go Red events. She shared some startling facts that should snap awake any man or woman:

  • 1/2 women over 40 will have a major CVD (cardiovascular disease) episode
  • Cardiovascular disease kills more people than the next 6 leading causes of death combined
  • 1/3 of women die of CVD (all ages combined)
  • 90% of all people who have heart attacks have at least one or more of the following: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high heart rate

So what do we really know about our heart’s health? Sadly, not as much as we should. We know we should exercise and watch our sodium intake, but beyond that, we don’t know enough about a disease that kills more than half a million Americans each year (CDC).

We spoke to several experts to find out what it is we should know about heart health that we don’t already know. In short, we should stress less, brush our teeth more often, get more out of our annual OB/GYN visits, eat more seafood, and exercise more. We hope this information will help you make the important changes you need to make in order to live a longer, healthier life with a strong heart.

Brush Your Teeth! “Researchers have found that diseased gums release bacteria into the bloodstream and can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancers, and pregnancy complications,” says Dr. Colleen Olitsky, The Smile Stylist ® and author of The Naked Tooth: What Cosmetic Dentists Don’t Want You to Know. She recommends the basics of oral hygiene, like brushing twice daily, flossing once daily, scraping your tongue daily and seeing your dentist twice a year.

Treat Psoriasis. “Patients with moderate to severe psoriasis who are overweight have an increased risk of coronary artery disease as a result of the same inflammatory cells that cause the psoriasis also flooding into the coronary arteries and producing inflammation and potential blockage,” says Alan Menter, M.D., chair of the dermatology residency program, Baylor University School of Medicine in Dallas, and a former member of the National Psoriasis Foundation Medical Board. He says every effort to manage a normal weight with healthy diet and exercise should be made, as well as treating an existing case of psoriasis.

Raise Your Testosterone. “Testosterone is very important for heart function. In men, the heart is the organ with more testosterone receptors than any other organ because testosterone helps to keep the heart muscle functioning well,” says Alicia Stanton, MD, a hormone health expert. “Studies show that men with low testosterone are more likely to have high cholesterol, heart attacks and diabetes. Because cortisol, our stress hormone, uses the same building blocks as testosterone, men can naturally help to keep their testosterone levels up by limiting stress and getting enough sleep.” Stanton recommends men limit sugar, trans fat and refined carb consumption, which lowers testosterone, as well as use strength and interval training to raise it.

Eat More Seafood. The new dietary guidelines for Americans, released in January 2024, recommends that Americans eat eight ounces of seafood each week, in order to get the heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. This information comes from Laura Ali, M.S, R.D., Registered Dietitian for StarKist, who says “Research has shown that people who eat at least two servings of seafood a week have lower rates of heart disease than people who eat less.” Ali suggests that tuna is “One of the easiest cold-water fish to incorporate into your diet.” Start with this healthy tuna salad recipe.

Reduce Inflammation. Dr. Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet and president of Zone Labs Inc., says that “The  primary cause of a heart attack is the aggregation of platelets either caused by increased levels of inflammatory hormones or the rupture of soft vulnerable plaque (like the bursting of a pimple) that release cellular debris that cause the aggregation of platelets. Both events are caused by inflammation and this inflammation can be reduced by anti-inflammatory drugs (like an aspirin) or an anti-inflammatory diet (like the Zone Diet).”

Saturated Fat. “Do you think saturated fats contribute to heart disease? Think again,” a warning from Paula Owens, a holistic nutritionist and fitness expert. “A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that women who regularly eat the highest amounts of saturated fats have the least amount of plaque buildup in their arteries and had a healthier balance of HDL and LDL cholesterols.” She recommends finding these healthy saturated fats in coconut oil, organic butter, grass-fed beef, cage-free poultry and eggs, and unpasteurized, raw dairy.

Stress Less. Easier said than done? “Stress may not be the direct cause of heart disease but it can increase blood pressure, lead to depression, poor diets, fat deposits around the abdomen, using too much alcohol or too many drugs, poor sleep and a host of other things that contribute to it,” says Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek, clinical psychologist and author of Life Happens. Her recommendation for curbing stress? “A highly effective way of dealing with stress, its effects and its accompanying behaviors is to pay attention to your breathing in a focused way (mindfulness meditation). There is wide-ranging evidence to support its positive effect on reducing stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety, decreasing blood pressure and improving your skills in managing life situations.”

Taste More. You might be surprised to know that the taste of your food has an affect on your heart. Or rather, the types of food that accompany those tastes. “Ancient Chinese doctors knew that the five tastes of food affect the health of your organs, and that bitter-tasting food helps the heart,” says Kitty Bradshaw, acupuncturist and herbalist at Biom.net. She recommends including all five tastes in a meal (sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter), with a focus on the bitter foods. “Broccoli, avocado, artichokes and tea have the kind of energy that benefits your heart.”

Get More Out of Your Gyno Visit. When you schedule your annual Pap test, also have your cholesterol tested. This advice to “get a VAP with your Pap” comes from Dr. Steve Foley, a Colorado Springs gynecologist. He says “For many women, their annual gynecologic examination is the only routine preventive care they receive. As a result, OB/Gyns, acting as primary caregivers, are in a unique position to discuss heart disease with their patients and incorporate cholesterol testing as a standard part of their patients’ exams.” This is a practice he has followed with patients for six years, since he first heard of the VAP Cholesterol Test, something he says “is much more accurate than the commonly used cholesterol screening test, is inexpensive, and can be done without fasting.”

Exercise Your Heart. “Did you know that your heart is a muscle? Just like your bicep, if you exercise your heart, it becomes stronger. If your bicep is stronger, you can lift heavier objects. If your heart is stronger, it can pump more blood with each beat,” says Carol Frazey, M.S., with the Fit School. The heart does double-duty as a muscle and an organ, so like any other muscle you have to work to keep it strong and fit. “This is why people who walk, run, and do aerobic exercise consistently generally have a lower heart rate. A lower heart rate is fewer heartbeats per minute to move the same amount of blood throughout your body”

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