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February 21, 2013 // By Sally Sapega // Comments

Take Control of Your Heart Health

Brain and Behavior // Ear, Nose, and Throat // Heart // Heart Month // Heart Month 2013 // Nutrition // Research Share this article

To celebrate February as American Heart Month, the News Blog is highlighting some of the latest heart-centric news and stories from all areas of Penn Medicine.

The mortality rate from both heart disease and stroke have decreased significantly in the past decade, but they still remain the #1 and #4 causes of death in this country, respectively. You can lower your personal risks by making four changes in your lifestyle.

Take control.

Number 1:   Quit Smoking!

Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body but is especially damaging to the circulatory system. Each puff of nicotine from tobacco smoke temporarily increases heart rate and blood pressure, even as less oxygen-rich blood circulates through the body.

Qutting is not easy, for anyone.  Nicotine is one of the most powerful ‘satisfaction’ drugs, along with crack cocaine and heroin. But, for some people, their genetic make-ups make it even more difficult.  Penn researchers identified genetic receptors in smokers that explained why some people are more likely to start smoking again, a discovery that could lead to new treatments targeting these receptors.  Another Penn study demonstrated the benefit of tailored cessation therapy.  Researchers found that people who metabolize nicotine relatively slowly benefit more from nicotine patch therapy than those who metabolize it quickly. These smokers would do better with drug therapy.

Once you quit, your body begins the healing process almost immediately.  Within 20 minutes of smoking your last cigarette, your blood pressure goes down.  And, within only one day, your risk of having a heart attack starts to decrease.  In fact, going tobacco-free for 10 years lowers your risk of developing heart disease to that of a person who never smoked.

Number 2:  Manage Your Blood Pressure

Do you know your numbers?  Blood pressure numbers, that is.  Hypertension –- a ‘silent killer’ that often has no symptoms --  ranks as a significant risk for developing heart disease. An estimated one in three adults has high blood pressure but isn’t aware of it. Knowing your numbers can save your life. 

This is the basis for Penn’s Cut Hypertension Program, run by students in the Perelman School of Medicine. The Penn chapter of the Student National Medical Association partnered with local barbershops to screen customers for high blood pressure as they waited for haircuts. The beauty of the program is its access point. By focusing on barbershops -- long a cornerstone of the African-American community -- the program is directly engaging black men, who historically have a much higher rate of hypertension than the rest of the population.

Staying at a healthy weight can also help control blood pressure but keep an eye on your waistline as well. Too much weight around your waist increases blood pressure. In general, men with a waist measurement greater than 40 inches and women with a waist greater than 35 inches are at higher risk.

 Number 3: Eat a Healthier Diet

While an occasional meal at a fast food restaurant won’t hurt you, a daily diet filled with fried foods, red meat and junk food will. Eating whole grain fiber, lean protein (ie, poultry and fish), and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables will not only help control blood pressure but plays a role in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar, two other ‘numbers’ you need to know that can put you at risk for heart disease. Many studies have shown the strong link between a heart healthy diet and a life free of cardiovascular disease.

Another bonus of a healthy diet:  Penn researchers have discovered that what you eat may affect how much sleep you get.  People who report eating a larger variety of foods -– an indication of an overall healthy diet –- have the healthiest sleep patterns.

Another Penn study showed that it’s not just what you eat but when you eat that can lead to obesity. In animal studies, throwing off the mice’s daily rhythm changed their metabolism and it seems to have the same effect on humans. Night shift workers have an increased prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome.             

4. Get -– and Stay -- Active

A lack of physical activity is a leading risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day, five times per week, will lower that risk.  Brisk walking is one of the best ways to get started. It requires no special equipment, aside from a pair of shoes that provides support and stability. There are many inexpensive pedometers on the market –- as well as fitness apps to download -– that can help keep you motivated.

Don’t let winter weather keep you on the couch. Dress in layers and bring your water bottle on cold weather walks.  The air tends to be dry, which means you’re more likely to become dehydrated. Or strengthen your heart with jogging, walking, or other aerobic exercises in a gym.  Research has also found that individuals may gain two hours of life expectancy for every one hour of regular, vigorous exercise they do. 

For more heart health tips, check out this video of Mariell Jessup, MD, medical director of the Penn Medicine Heart and Vascular Center and president-elect of the American Heart Association. 

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