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What You Need to Know About Your Heart

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Genevieve Cunningham

What You Need to Know About Your Heart

The heart is a symbol of love. We see it everywhere -- on valentines, greeting cards, television. When we see a heart, we think of love of all kinds. But our actual hearts don’t really have much to do with love. They have to do with function and blood flow. They have to do with a long and healthy life. But what if we did take the love approach when it came to the heart? What if we showed ourselves a little self-love? If you want a healthy heart, that may be just what you need.

What Is the Heart?

The heart is more than a pretty shape. It’s the main organ of your cardiovascular system. It’s a muscle, about the size of your fist, and its main job is to pump blood throughout your body. It literally sustains your life. When the heart stops beating, your life stops with it. Because of its huge significance and the prevalence of disease in this necessary organ, keeping it healthy and understanding the potential downfalls is of the utmost importance.

What Are Common Heart Conditions?

Heart disease is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple conditions. Some heart conditions are extremely rare, while others seemingly run rampant through the population. It can be beneficial to be aware of some of the most common heart conditions of which you may be at risk.

  • Coronary artery disease - This is a condition in which the coronary arteries harden or are blocked due to plaque buildup. This can affect blood flow to the heart and lead to a heart attack.
  • Congenital heart disease - Those who suffer from this issue were born with the problem. This condition can affect the structure of the heart, the valves, the connection of chambers, and more. Those with congenital heart defects will need a lifetime of monitoring and care.
  • Arrhythmia - This simply means an irregular heartbeat. The heart can beat too quickly or too slowly, or it may be completely erratic. Some arrhythmias are life threatening while others cause little to no issue. A doctor can help determine the severity of your condition.
  • Cardiomyopathy - You can suffer from either dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle is stretched and loose, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle thickens. Both forms are dangerous to the long-term health of the heart.
  • Heart failure - This is a condition in which your heart can’t pump blood well enough to meet your body’s needs. It generally progresses over time. Treatment and monitoring by a professional are crucial for a longer life and improved quality of life.

In your lifetime, you may suffer from one or more of these, or you may not suffer from any at all. The only way to understand your risk -- and to manage it -- is to see your healthcare professional regularly.

What Are Risk Factors for Heart Disease?

Heart disease doesn’t discriminate. It’s estimated that 48 percent of adults have some form of cardiovascular disease. Although anyone can suffer from heart disease, there are certain factors for heart disease that raise the risk considerably. Unfortunately, many fall into one or more of these categories.

  • Obesity - Almost 1 in 3 American adults is considered overweight, with 1 in 11 considered severely obese. The rise in obesity has come with a rise in heart disease. Carrying more weight taxes the heart and requires it to work harder. Of all the risk factors, this is possibly the one with the most impact -- and the one with which we have the most control.
  • High blood pressure - High blood pressure is known as a silent killer. You may not notice it until significant damage has been done. If left uncontrolled, it can lead to a much higher risk of heart disease and ultimately heart attack.
  • High cholesterol - There are two kinds of cholesterol in the body: good (HDL) and bad (LDL). When there’s too much bad cholesterol, it puts the heart at serious risk. High cholesterol has zero symptoms, so you’ll need regular blood work to keep it in check.
  • Smoking - Luckily, this habit has seen a serious decline, but vaping has taken its place. Both smoking and vaping are bad for the heart. If you want the best health, it’s best to put any form of smoking down for good.
  • Sedentary lifestyle - Regular exercise is key to a healthy heart. Those living a sedentary lifestyle are putting their heart and overall health at risk.
  • Family history - When it comes to health, genetics matter. A family history of heart disease may mean you’re at higher risk of developing the condition yourself.
  • Age - Heart health naturally declines as we age. The more birthdays that pass, the more likely it is to develop heart disease.

How Does a Healthy Heart Contribute to Longevity and Quality of Life?

Many times, and especially when we’re young, heart health is overlooked. We can’t see the heart, and unless there’s a major problem, we may not notice symptoms of decline. But maintaining a healthy heart is absolutely crucial to long-term health and an active life. Why? Let’s look at what an unhealthy heart can cause in your daily life:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Swelling in the legs

If a heart condition is behind these symptoms, you may find that they simply won’t let up. The shortness of breath happens even with normal, daily activity. Fatigue crops up no matter how much sleep you seem to get. And anxiety may become worse and worse without any obvious reason as to why. These symptoms can cause a disruption to daily life, meaning stress goes up and the quality of your life goes down. And as the heart works harder, it can shorten your overall lifespan. The key to happiness and longevity may not solely depend on the heart, but the heart certainly plays a significant role.

How to Have a Healthy Heart

With the prevalence of heart disease in America, you may have a feeling of hopelessness or despair. How can we possibly keep a healthy heart? Is there any hope? What lifestyle habits promote heart health? The good news is that there are so many healthy habits that we can incorporate into our lives to increase our odds of long-term heart health.

  • Physical activity - Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. You can choose an exercise you enjoy -- walking, swimming, running, or something else -- and perform the activity regularly. It also helps to stay active through hobbies like gardening, hiking, or something similar.
  • Heart healthy diet - If we are what we eat, we definitely want to eat for a healthy heart. A heart healthy diet contains lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole oats, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Be heavy on the water consumption and light on the red meat.
  • Skip alcohol - Alcohol is not great for the body. If you must consume it, do so in moderation.
  • Lower stress - Stress can be really bad for your heart and overall health. In today’s world and economy, it can feel impossible to lower stress but it’s more important than ever. Consider options such as time management, meditation, cardio exercise, and balancing your workload to help lower stress.
  • Manage weight - Obesity is a big problem in the United States, but it’s something we can have some control over. If you don’t want to overwork the heart, work to maintain a healthy weight. You can do this through exercise and a healthy diet -- two other important factors in long-term heart health.
  • See your doctor - Healthcare professionals are there to help. Keeping up with well-checks and following their advice may help save your heart and health long-term.

Whether you think of the heart as a symbol of love or not, a healthy heart is most certainly a symbol of life. If you want to enjoy your life, you have to keep your heart healthy. Start during American Heart Month (February) or on your birthday or at the beginning of the year. It doesn’t matter when you start -- just start! Your self-love for your heart may be just what you need to lead a longer, healthier, happier life.

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