February is American Heart Month, a great time to celebrate the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, which seeks to end heart disease and stroke in women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, accounting for about one in every four deaths.
While some women experience no symptoms during a heart attack, others can feel pain in different places, including in their chest, neck/jaw/throat, upper abdomen or back. Pain can start when the patient is at rest, during physical activity or when she is under emotional stress. My patients have described their heart attacks as feeling like they had persistent heartburn or like they had the flu with shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue. If you don’t feel right, listen to your body and make an appointment with your primary care provider. If you end up with heartburn or the flu, it’s still a good idea to seek treatment.
When it comes to improving heart health, I have to start with the old standbys: diet and exercise. As much as we get tired of hearing it, healthy lifestyle choices are often the best way to reduce our risks for heart disease and many other illnesses.
For some people, the toughest part of improving diet and exercise is the belief that they must improve dramatically and immediately. While that may work for a few lucky people, most of us can only sustain change when it’s slow and steady—one step at a time.
When I’m working with patients to help them improve their diet, I often refer them to www.choosemyplate.com. For a healthy mix of foods, half your plate should be a variety of veggies (leafy greens and squash both count), a quarter should be lean protein and the remaining quarter should be complex carbohydrates (ideally, whole grains). Regardless of what you eat, keep the portion size down.
Remember, trying to change your diet overnight is a bad idea but incorporating more veggies and more lean protein is a good start.
For my sedentary patients, I recommend starting with a routine that includes five minutes of walking right after a meal. Activity directly after you eat helps metabolize sugar. Instead of converting the food you just ate to fat, the body uses it as fuel for your walk. Dishes can wait. Start with a simple walk to the end of the block and back every evening. Over time, one block can become two, and two can become three. Eventually, you may go for a 30-minute walk after dinner each night. But start with five minutes.
Even with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, health problems can arise. Paying attention to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol can help you identify these problems early.
Let’s look at blood pressure. Ideally, adults should have a blood pressure of about 130/80. The top number is the systolic pressure; it measures how much pressure is in your heart when it’s contracting to send blood to the rest of the body. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure; it measures the pressure or tension of the heart at rest while it’s filling with blood before contracting again.
When we’re young, our veins and arteries are like new garden hoses, supple and flexible, able to transport liquid efficiently. As we age, our vasculature becomes more like hoses that were left out in the sun all summer—stiff, cracked, and less efficient. In fact, to get blood through old veins and arteries, our hearts often have to work harder causing our resting blood pressure to increase as we age. If we want to keep those veins and arteries functioning properly, a healthy diet can help reduce calcium build-up and increase the pliability of our vessels.
Changing health habits takes time. If you have setbacks while trying to live a healthier lifestyle, that’s okay. Just don’t give up.
Talitha Marty is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.