7 steps to a healthier heart


High blood pressure is a common problem that often goes undiagnosed. Regular blood pressure checks are critical. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It may be time to rethink your approach to heart health.

For decades, the rate of heart disease in the U.S. had been steadily declining.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing about 697,000 people each year. That’s 1 in 5 deaths.

But you can do plenty to protect yourself, said Araya Negash, DO, a board-certified cardiologist with Spectrum Health.

Here are seven things you can do right now to protect your heart:

1. Quit smoking

If you’re a smoker, you’ve probably been told hundreds of times that it’s a leading cause of heart disease and cancer. And yes, that includes vaping.

“Quitting smoking is far and away the most important thing people can do to help lower the risk of a cardiac event,” Dr. Negash said. “It not only helps people live longer but feel better while they’re alive.”

It’s not easy.

A smoker will typically make multiple quit attempts before succeeding. But it’s a winnable battle. About 60% of adults who smoked have since kicked the habit.

If you’ve tried and failed—and most former smokers fail at first—don’t go it alone. Contact the Spectrum Health smoking cessation program.

2. Know your blood pressure

Hypertension is widespread in the U.S., likely affecting 47% of adults. But experts say it’s often undiagnosed. And only 1 in 4 have it under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Getting your blood pressure checked regularly is a big component in this fight.

3. Check your cholesterol

Health care providers look at cholesterol levels—a combination of triglycerides, LDL and HDL—to determine the risk of atherosclerosis, a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. This increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Healthy adults aged 20 and older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.

4. Move more

Exercise and activity improve heart health. But they can also decrease anxiety and lead to better sleep, which reduces stress. Set a goal of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of more intense exercise.

5. Manage stress

Simple relaxation breaks can work wonders.

While Dr. Negash doesn’t have a formal meditation practice, he does try to give himself five minutes of quiet, “whether that’s right before I go to bed or during my lunch break. I just sit and take a moment to breathe and try to clear my mind.”

He tries a different strategy on weekends, finding mindfulness in physical activity.

“For a few minutes when I’m walking, I won’t put my headphones in,” he said. “I shake off anything that’s on my mind—work, the family, what’s going on with Michigan State basketball. I just try and clear my mind.”

6. Challenge notions of healthy weight

America is suffering from an obesity crisis, with two-thirds of adults overweight.

Focusing only on the weight scale, however, can contribute to a demoralizing cycle of failed diets. Many experts are increasingly skeptical of using body mass index (based on weight and height) as the only yardstick.

Instead, talk to your health care provider about realistic goals. Losing even a small amount of weight can have powerful health benefits.

7. Reassess your cardiac risk

Talk to your provider about your risk of heart disease, taking into account your current weight, age and fitness level.

If you’re between the ages of 40 and 75, check out this simple health calculator by the American Heart Association.

Finally, look at the big picture.

“All these different things will definitely be good for your heart,” Dr. Negash said. “But they’ll also be good for many other things—your mental health, chronic pain and your gastrointestinal tract.

“Once we start taking care of our bodies and investing in our health by eating right, exercising, sleeping and managing stress to the best of our ability, there are benefits for all our organ systems.”





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