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Heart and Brain Health: Do One New Thing for Three Weeks

A new year is upon us! With it come resolutions to eat better, get more exercise, and start down the path to better health. These are the life improvements we so earnestly want to adopt. Yet, they have a way of falling to the wayside—a common theme for many of us (myself included).

Take heart!

But take heart—pun intended! You can start any time of year. If you need a little extra incentive, consider this: February is American Heart Month! This initiative from the American Heart Association (AHA) is intended to build awareness around strategies for engaging in a heart healthy lifestyle.

Consider these facts from the AHA:

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.—for both women and men.
  • One in four deaths is caused by heart disease.
  • Every 80 seconds, heart disease kills one woman.
  • Thirty percent of deaths among women in the U.S are caused by heart attacks and strokes.
  • High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking all contribute to heart disease.
  • Physical inactivity is also a contributing factor to heart disease.

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain

As someone who has worked in the field of aging for over 20 years, it’s evident to me that a healthy heart contributes to a more satisfying life as we grow older. Those individuals I know who have engaged in regular exercise and watch what they eat seem to have more positive health outcomes.

Heart health also supports brain health. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain! Let’s look at how we can make simple, effective changes that will benefit your heart and overall health.

Adopting new habits to benefit heart health

By slowly incorporating new practices into your life, you can strengthen your heart and improve your overall health. Choose just one, and you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel. Start with a visit to your health care professional before embarking on any significant changes in physical activity:

  • Get a baseline of your five most important health numbers. When you know your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI) numbers, you can find out if you are at risk for developing heart disease or other
    health conditions and take preventive measures to address any concerns that don’t contribute to good health.
  • Watch your weight. We all know the stress extra pounds can put on our bodies and our hearts. Obesity is responsible for many health conditions that can be reversed or improved through weight loss. Eating healthy and engaging in physical activity can help you lose pounds and maintain an optimal weight once you lose that extra weight.
  • Do you smoke? Quit! Stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. Check out Get Help to Quit Tobacco on the Washington State Department of Health website. Smoking cessation programs or support groups work too.
  • Manage blood pressure and cholesterol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the biggest risks for heart disease and other harmful conditions, such as stroke. Follow your healthcare provider’s advice. Losing weight, eating healthy, reducing the amount of sodium in your diet, and adding exercise can help lower and manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. What are the cardiovascular risks associated with alcohol? According to the AHA, “Drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood (triglycerides). It can also lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, and an increased calorie intake. Excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to stroke. Other serious problems include cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia, and sudden cardiac death.”
  • Engage in physical activity. Move more. This can be as simple as walking 20 minutes each day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away from the store. Find a class—water aerobics, dance, tai chi, gentle yoga—at your local community or senior center. It all counts! Check out Project Enhance, an evidence-based health promotion program sponsored by Sound Generations for a program near you.
  • Eat healthy. Eat smart. You don’t have to be a chef to prepare great meals. Reduce added sugar. Add color. Add more fresh vegetables and fruits to your diet. Choose lean meats and healthy fats. Eat more fish. Take a cooking class. Work with a nutritionist. The Mediterranean diet is often cited as one of the healthiest and good for your heart.
  • Get enough sleep. Seven to eight hours each night is what’s recommended. Sleep is restorative. Our quality of sleep influences everything from mood, to thinking, to reaction times, even our weight.

Prevention is key. Often, heart disease can be prevented when you make healthy choices and manage health conditions. Controlling and preventing risk factors is also important for people who already have heart disease.

Pick one thing

You don’t have to change everything at once. In fact, if you try to make too many changes, you are more likely to fail. Pick just one thing—exercise, diet, lose weight, manage blood pressure or cholesterol, quit smoking, or get enough sleep. Try it for 21 days—the length of time it takes to develop a new habit. Then, add another heart healthy choice. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to improved well-being, a happier heart, and a healthier lifestyle that you can maintain.

Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom. Pollock serves on the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County, the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee, and the Alzheimer’s Association Discovery Conference planning committee.