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The Blueprint for a Healthy Heart


February is American Heart Month, a time to promote awareness about the importance of following a heart-healthy lifestyle. But improving heart health isn’t limited to one month. Cardiac events are the number-one killer of Americans, so protecting your heart is important all year.

What Is a Cardiac Event?

Every year, more than one million Americans experience a cardiac event such as cardiac arrest or a heart attack. Although people may use these two terms interchangeably, and some of the symptoms can be the same, they are different conditions. Both require immediate medical attention.

Cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating or it beats so fast that it stops pumping blood. With cardiac arrest, you typically collapse and lose consciousness quickly. During cardiac arrest, seconds matter. If you see someone go into cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1 immediately and perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until help arrives. The emergency dispatcher can talk you through the steps.

Common signs before cardiac arrest include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting

Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is disrupted, due to a blockage in a blood vessel. This reduces the amount of oxygen that is carried to the heart, which damages the heart muscle.

Common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the jaw, back, arms, or shoulders
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Collapse

Men and Women May Have Different Symptoms

Although more men than women are diagnosed with heart disease, it is the leading cause of death for all adults over age 65.

Most heart attacks produce chest pain, but women are more likely than men to experience a “silent heart attack.” This type of heart attack has less typical symptoms such as back or jaw pain, fatigue, or indigestion. People may mistakenly dismiss these symptoms, thinking they are just feeling unwell or pulled a muscle. But if these symptoms come on suddenly, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Risk Factors at Any Age

Cardiac events occur more frequently in older adults, but younger people can be at risk. Local organizations like Aidan’s Heart Foundation and Simon’s Heart were started by parents to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest in children.

There are lots of factors that increase your risk for cardiac events, such as:

  • Family history. If you have a grandparent, parent, sibling, aunt, or uncle who has heart disease, you may be at increased risk.
  • High blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure stresses your blood vessels and increases your risk for cardiac events.
  • High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that can build up inside blood vessels and limit blood flow to the heart.
  • Sleep disorders. People who have insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, and sleep apnea are at greater risk for heart disease.
  • Lack of exercise. Your heart is a muscle, and exercise makes it stronger. It also helps manage weight, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality, which are all good for your heart.
  • Unhealthy food choices. Processed foods with high levels of salt, sugar, fat, and cholesterol are bad for your heart. Choose healthier foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grain foods that are high in fiber.
  • Smoking. Tobacco use is associated with an increased risk of cardiac events. Smoking cessation programs or products can help you quit for good.
  • Alcohol. Too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and your risk of cardiac events. Try to limit alcohol consumption.
  • Social determinants of health. There are disparities in risk for heart disease for people of color, particularly Black Americans and Native Americans, due to systemic factors that disproportionately expose them to environmental and social risk factors. People of color should get regular checkups and ask their primary care doctor about their risks.

If you have even one of these risk factors, you should talk to your primary care doctor. While you cannot control all risk factors, you should try to change the ones you can. Your doctor can help you identify ways to lower your risk.

Heart Health and Mental Health

The relationship between heart health and mental health is powerful. After a cardiac event, it’s common for people to experience anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Some may withdraw from family and friends out of fear or embarrassment.

Similarly, mental health issues can affect your heart. Stress, anxiety, and depression can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, both of which negatively impact heart health. Studies show that people who experience high levels of stress, like veterans and people of color, tend to have higher rates of heart disease.

Resources

The American Heart Association offers an online support network for people with heart disease, as well as a digital library of resources on heart health.

A nutritionist or dietitian can help you develop a heart-healthy food plan. In fact, many Independence Blue Cross (IBX) plans have benefits for up to six visits with a dietitian.

IBX members also have access to Registered Nurse Health Coaches who can listen to your health concerns, answer your questions, and offer support.

Take the Next Step

The blueprint for a healthy heart starts with talking to your primary care doctor. They can discuss your risk factors for cardiac events, as well as lifestyle modifications or medicines that may improve your health. They may also suggest you see a cardiologist (heart doctor) for additional testing. And if you have mental health concerns, your primary care doctor can also offer recommendations to improve your emotional well-being.

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