In recognition of American Heart Month, MGH physicians share their tips for the best ways to "love your heart."

Heart smarts

07/Feb/2014

Each February, the American Heart Association (AHA) shines a spotlight on heart disease. In honor of the 50th anniversary of American Heart Month, the AHA will celebrate its own anniversary of the “Go Red for Women” campaign – an initiative, 10 years strong, that aims to help women build healthier lives free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

According to the AHA, heart disease kills nearly 380,000 Americans a year and is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Heart disease is a risk for everyone and is the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. The statistics are alarming but there also is good news – heart disease is preventable and controllable.

Cardiologists say one of the best ways to “love your heart” is to participate in regular exercise, even for a few minutes a day. “Choose a moving option whenever possible,” says Aaron Baggish, MD, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program in the MGH Institute for Heart, Vascular and Stroke Care. “Use the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator; do one errand a week on foot that you would normally do by car – it all adds up.” Adopting a more physically active lifestyle can lower risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, all contributing factors to heart disease.

If you have high blood pressure, you are not alone: 1 in 3 Americans has hypertension. There are several possible ways to prevent hypertension, says Randall Zusman, MD, director of the MGH Division of Hypertension. “This means following a healthy eating plan, managing your stress and engaging in regular physical activities.” When it comes to nutrition, Zusman emphasizes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoiding excessively salted foods such as pickles, pretzels, potato chips, canned soups and vegetables. He says to also remember there is a large amount of salt in breakfast cereals, cottage cheese and many types of bread. “Never add salt to your food,” Zusman says.

Even though it is not possible to change a person’s genetic makeup, knowing one’s family health history can help to reduce the risk of developing health problems. “If your mother, father, sister or brother had a heart attack before the age of 60, be sure to discuss your cardiovascular history with your doctor, and make sure to get your cholesterol checked,” says Linda Hemphill, MD, a cardiologist in the Institute. “Familial hypercholesterolemia is passed down through families and can cause heart attacks at an early age.”

Maria Vivaldi, MD, director of education at the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program, urges people to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Heart attacks can present dramatically, but she stresses more subtle symptoms also can be a sign of trouble – especially for women. “Warning signs can include flu-like symptoms, extreme fatigue, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea and sweating. Minutes matter and fast action can save lives.”

Malissa Wood, MD, co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program, encourages patients to challenge themselves to make one positive health change this month. At the heart of good health is teamwork, Wood says. “Baby steps can result in great strides in health improvement. Recruit your partner, friend, or co-worker to enhance your chance of success. It provides accountability and entertainment; the more the merrier.”

Throughout the month of February, the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program will host several events in honor of American Heart Month and the “Go Red for Women” campaign.



Read more articles from the 02/07/14 Hotline issue.