February is American Heart Month, a time when all people are encouraged to focus on their heart health.
One way to focus on heart health is to understand blood pressure. We all know how traffic, stress, or anger can get our blood boiling, but what exactly is blood pressure and how does it affect heart health?
Your hard-working heart!
You could say your heart is the hardest working organ in the body! It beats about 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. During an average lifetime, the human heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times pumping 1 million barrels of blood.
Blood is pumped around our bodies through a network of blood vessels called arteries. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to all parts of your body, from the major organs to the tiniest of tissues. And all of this goes on without us even thinking about it. Our poor hearts don’t get the respect they deserve!
Out of sight, out of mind!
While our hearts are silently pumping away and giving us no trouble, most of us don't spend much time thinking about them. In fact, many people have no sense of what their blood pressure is. Regular checkups are important for lots of reasons, especially as we age–and heart health is one of those reasons. Even if you’ve never had elevated blood pressure before, it’s common to develop hypertension as you age. Nearly half of adults in
the United States suffers from high blood pressure.
So what exactly is blood pressure and why does it matter so much? Blood pressure is a measure of the force that your heart uses to pump all that blood around your body. The more force your heart needs to use to move your blood, the harder it’s working. A healthy heart is working hard already!
So the harder your heart has to work to pump blood to all the places that need it, the more likely it is to have problems. Keeping an eye on your blood pressure, especially as you get older, is important because you can find yourself with an elevated risk of heart attack and not even know it.
The American Heart Association offers advice and tools to check your blood pressure here.
What's age got to do with it?
The older you get, the more your body's network of blood vessels changes. Arteries get stiffer, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood through them which causes blood pressure to go up. This can be true even if you feel fine, have healthy habits, and have never had high blood pressure.
Hypertension often has no warning signs and is called the “silent killer” because it contributes to heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease. Hypertension can also contribute to vision loss!
Do you know your numbers?
Systolic. Diastolic. These are the two measurements that make up your blood pressure and you should have them checked regularly! Systolic blood pressure, or the “top number” measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts or pumps. The “bottom number”, or diastolic, is the pressure in the arteries when the heart relaxes between heartbeats.
Your blood pressure changes throughout the day based on your activities. Blood pressure that measures consistently above normal may result in a diagnosis of hypertension. Do you know where you are in this chart of blood pressure categories?
Source: American Heart Association
Everyday choices matter!
The choices you make every day can impact heart health…in positive or negative ways. What you do with your fork, fingers, and feet every single day matters. Making healthy lifestyle choices can:
Reduce high blood pressure.
Prevent or delay the development of high blood pressure.
Enhance the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
Lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney damage, vision loss, and sexual dysfunction.
Show your heart some love!
In most cases, heart disease is preventable when you adopt a healthy lifestyle. Here are the most important things you can do to show your heart some love:
Eat a low-fat, high-fiber, well-balanced, plant-based diet. Seek whole or minimally processed foods.
Be aware of your sodium intake. Most people get far more salt than is recommended which is 2,300 mg or just one teaspoon! Reduce salt gradually and before you know it, your taste buds will adapt. Cook at home where you can control the salt and avoid processed foods which are notoriously high in sodium.
Limit–or eliminate alcohol.
Enjoy regular physical activity that gets your heart pumping. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week (that’s only about 20 minutes per day!). Find something you enjoy doing; try dancing in your living room, walking or hiking with a friend, swimming or water aerobics!
Manage stress. Take up meditation. Listen to relaxing music. Spend time outdoors. Laugh regularly. Getting enough quality sleep also matters a great deal to stress management, among other things.
Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts added stress on your heart. A low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet can help you achieve your ideal weight. Look for ways to reduce added oils and fats, include more foods with higher fiber content, and crowd out unhealthy foods by gradually adding more vegetables, beans, grains, and fruit to your plate.
Quit smoking. Today.
Include health care. Health care is self-care! Get regular checkups. Monitor your blood pressure. If you're already taking medications, take them properly and let your healthcare professional know about lifestyle changes you make so your medications can be adjusted if necessary.
If you want to know more about heart health, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has easy-to-understand information on high blood pressure.
And if you want to dive in and learn how to make delicious plant-based meals, don’t forget to sign up for the FREE Food for Life class being offered this month, Foods for a Healthy Heart.
Start taking better care of your heart this month and pass this along to your loved ones! A healthy heart is a happy heart!