By Bob Wright, Director of Education, Hilton Head Health, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Heart disease is the number-one cause of death in both men and women in the U.S. About 600,000 people die of heart disease every year: That is one in every four deaths. The Centers for Disease Controls estimates that a third of those deaths occur in people under the age of 65. Heart disease takes an incredible toll not only on its victims but their loved ones.
But as depressing as those statistics are, there is reason to be optimistic. According to Martha Grogan, M.D., medical editor-in-chief of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart for Life Program, almost 80 percent of the cases could be prevented. Lifestyle choices (things that we control) have a huge impact on our risk. While most of you are aware of these, here is a quick review of the major controllable risk factors: maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels; avoiding tobacco; eating a healthy diet; exercising regularly; and maintaining a healthy weight.
The problem is that if you are not following these recommendations it may seem daunting to meet the national guidelines that have been established for each of those areas. For example, if you haven’t exercised regularly in years and/or you are a very busy person, it might seem unrealistic, if not impossible, to meet the recommended 30 minutes a day of brisk exercise. Or if you thought that your “healthy weight” from the charts seems unachievable, you might not be motivated to even try to lose. The reality is, however, that even small changes can make a big difference. Here are a few examples of how small changes have a big payoff.
You only need to lose 3 percent: For those overweight, even a small weight loss lowers your risk. According to the new Guidelines for the Management of Overweight and Obesity in Adults, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, those maintaining a weight loss of as little as 3 percent (six pounds for someone 200 pounds) would see clinically meaningful reductions in triglycerides, blood glucose, and other risk factors for heart disease.
Move at least 10 minutes a day: Any regular exercise is better than none. Dr. Martha Grogan, cardiologist from the Mayo Clinic, says that “moving even 10 minutes a day for someone who’s been sedentary may reduce the risk of heart disease by 50 percent.” Even a two-minute walk appears to be beneficial. Researchers from Australia found that after drinking a high-sugar, high-fat beverage, those walking leisurely for two minutes every 20 minutes, reduced the blood sugar spike by 24 percent compared to those who didn’t walk. For those who tend to sit for long periods of time, interrupting sitting by walking for as little as two minutes every half hour or so might be enough to lower their risk.
Increase fruits and veggies by one serving a day: Guidelines from the American Heart Association and the USDA recommend up to 11 servings of vegetables and fruits a day. That’s a challenge even for a veggie lover, but for someone who is not such a big veggie fan, it would seem impossible to achieve. But a study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found [those having just one serving per day (half cup) increase longevity significantly compared to those eating no fruits and vegetables]. Longevity was increased with each additional serving up to five servings per day. This study did not look specifically at heart disease but previous studies have confirmed the beneficial relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and heart disease risk.
Eat a few berries: Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that consuming relatively small amounts of berries can make a big difference. Data gathered from over 93,000 women who are part of the Nurses’ Health study found that those who ate the most blueberries and strawberries were 34 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack during the 18-year study period than those who ate the least. Lead researcher Dr. Eric Rimm commented, “the people with heart benefits had three or more servings of a half cup of strawberries and blueberries each week.” It seems hard to believe that eating one-and-a-half cups per week of something that tastes so good could help protect your heart.
Snack on a little dark chocolate: While we are talking about things that taste good, you have no doubt heard dark chocolate (75 percent cacao and higher), nuts, alcohol, and tea all lower the risk for heart disease. To get the protective effect of the first three, they need to be consumed in small amounts. Limit your dark chocolate and nuts to no more than one ounce a day and alcohol to no more than one drink per day for women; two drinks per day for me (a drink is 12 ounces of regular beer; one-and-a-half ounces of distilled spirits; or five ounces of wine). Feel free to drink freshly brewed tea more liberally, up to eight cups a day, but keep the sugar to a minimum.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day: You have probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal; another study from the Harvard School of Public Health supports that notion. In this case, the researchers analyzed food questionnaire data and health outcome on 26,902 male health professionals during a 16-year period. The researchers found that those who skipped breakfast regularly had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack of death from coronary heart disease than those regularly eat breakfast. Dr. Eric Rimm, the researcher referred to earlier, was also the senior author of this study and said: “It is a really simple message. Breakfast is an important meal.” Co-author Leah Cahill, post-doctoral research fellow in the Harvard school of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, added, “skipping breakfast may lead to one or more risk factors including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, which may in turn lead to a heart attack over time.”
Sleep tight…longer: We all know we need to sleep to feel well, but a study published in the European Heart Journal found that those sleeping six or fewer hours a night had a 48 percent higher increased risk of developing or dying from heart disease during the follow-up period than those getting seven to eight hours per night, suggesting that just one more hour per night could reduce the risk significantly.
Sex can be a lifesaver: And last but not least, regular sex seems to lower the risk as well. Researchers at The New England Research Institute in Massachusetts found that men who have sex at least twice a week were 45 percent less likely to have cardiovascular problems than men who have it less often. While this research focused on men, there is no reason to believe that women would not benefit as well.
The bottom line is that small changes in your health behavior can yield big health benefits. Pick one area and get started today.