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To Your Health

Celebrate love and prevent heart disease

Gray background with two pink hearts side by side

February is not only the shortest month of the year but is also considered the month of love by many. Whether you express that love by fostering relationships with family and friends or focusing on self-care, being kind to yourself and others has far-reaching benefits.

Kindness has been shown to decrease blood pressure and lower the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is an important stress hormone, and during times of stress, it is essential for maintaining several bodily functions. However, prolonged high cortisol levels due to long-term stress harm your heart's health. Studies indicate that high cortisol levels can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure.

In addition to February being the month of love, it is also American Heart Month, which gives us an entirely different way of loving our hearts. Healthcare providers and educators across the nation help raise awareness about heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a general term referring to several types of heart conditions. Some heart conditions you are born with these are called congenital heart abnormalities or diseases. In contrast, others develop over time and include conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, abnormal heart rhythm, and a weak heart. The actual cause of heart disease depends on the type of disease or condition. 

Coronary Artery Disease

The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), sometimes called coronary heart disease. CAD occurs slowly, as plaque builds up within the arteries supplying the heart with blood. The plaque contains cholesterol and other substances that cause the arteries to harden and narrow. This process makes them less flexible and can partially or totally block the blood flow to the heart's large arteries. When this occurs, blood flow to the heart is reduced, and the heart cannot receive the needed nutrients and oxygen-rich blood. As a result, the heart muscle weakens and becomes damaged, resulting in an increased risk of heart failure and irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).

Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease

While there are some risk factors you cannot control when it comes to heart disease, there are many that you can.

Limit convience foods. Convenience foods are foods that are processed to make them easily consumable. They can be quickly prepared or are simply ready to eat. However, convenience foods are typically less nutritious and higher in sodium, unhealthy fats, and added sugar. Convenience foods include a range of products from frozen and canned foods to instant potatoes and your favorite deli sandwich and chips. Limiting or avoiding these foods will reduce your risk of heart disease and lower your risk of many other chronic health conditions.   

Move more. Inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease than physically active people. In fact, not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease even if a person has no other risk factor. Being physically active for as little as 30 minutes most days of the week has far-reaching benefits. In addition to decreasing stress, improving sleep quality, increasing muscle strength, and preventing bone loss, there are many benefits to your heart health. Becoming more physically active can increase your HDL cholesterol, otherwise known as your good cholesterol. As well as lower blood pressure by as much as 4 to 9 mm Hg.

Talk to your healthcare provider. Talking to your healthcare provider about your heart health should not be uncomfortable. If you have questions about your family history of heart disease, concerns about your risk, and want to know what you can do to decrease your risk, make it a point to talk about them at your next visit. Think about and write down your questions ahead of time. Then make a copy and share it with the medical staff before seeing your healthcare provider. These simple steps will allow the provider and you to know what to expect during your visit and ensure all your questions can be addressed.

Stop smoking. Smoking causes the cells that line the blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed, increasing plaque formation, which can lead to heart disease. Smoking also increases triglyceride levels and lowers your HDL, or good cholesterol levels, which increases your risk of experiencing a stroke or heart attack. There is good news. When you quit smoking, the body repairs the damage caused by smoking relatively quickly, and your risk of heart attack and stroke significantly decrease.

Parting Thoughts

Remember, your wellness journey is not a destination. Rather it is an ongoing process with many moving parts and frequent detours. Knowing heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States is like a billboard alongside our journey to wellness. And taking steps now, no matter your age, to decrease your risk of heart disease will benefit you and your friends and family, which becomes part of your journey. So, this month, show your love by fostering relationships with those around you and taking steps to prevent heart disease in your life.

SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties.

Want to read more? Check out Walking the Line: A Journey of Wellness. A wellness blog intended to raise awareness, inspire behavior change, share new skills, and validate that - life is truly challenging. However, as we grow and learn together, I hope we will look within ourselves and acknowledge how our personal choices and behaviors contribute to our overall health and wellness. Please join me in this amazing adventure as we journey together, walking the line toward health and wellness.


Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease. University of Rochester Medical Center

Heart Disease Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is Coronary Heart Disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

What are Convenience Foods? The Health Board

Heart Health Benefits of Physical Activity. UCSF Health

How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tip Sheet: How to Talk to Your Healthcare Provider. AGS Health in Aging Foundation

Heart Disease and Stroke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention