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Eight Steps to a Healthier Heart

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Eight Steps to a Healthier Heart

Feb 23, 2024

Your heart beats approximately 100,000 times every day, circulating your blood across a distance of about 12,000 miles. From dietary choices to physical activity, sleep habits, and managing factors like smoking, weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure, each step is crucial for overall heart health. Women's health specialist Kirtly Parker Jones, MD, explores the American Heart Association's Life’s Essential 8 program, outlining key practices for maintaining a healthy heart and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Episode Transcript

Your heart pumps about 100,000 times a day. It pushes your blood around 12,000 miles a day. What do you need to know to take care of it?

Just put your hand on your heart. It's a gesture that we use when we pledge allegiance, when we say something we really mean, when we feel something profound. But you can feel your heart beating in there, unless you're kind of chubby, in which case we'll talk about that. But when you feel that pulse in your wrist or your neck or hear your pulse in your ear, it's your heart beating that you feel through the blood pulsing through your body.

If you're lucky, it's doing that without too much thought on your part even though your heart, at rest, works harder than the leg muscles of a sprinter. You should take care of your heart, symbolically and literally. Now, how can you do that?

What Makes a Healthy Heart?

The American Heart Association has a program called Life’s Essential 8. It’s important here to think about the title of this—Life’s Essential 8. It isn’t the heart’s essential 8, although the essential 8 are critical for heart health. It’s important to remember that what is healthy for your heart is healthy for your brain. So, you could call it the Brain’s Essential 8. Of course, after heart disease as a killer of women, and the fear of dementia, there is cancer. And the same things that are good for your heart and your brain can decrease your risk for cancer.

But, let’s consider the heart and the essential 8 areas that are important for a healthy heart.

1. Eat Better

Eat real food—not too much—mostly plants, to quote Michael Pollan. Fill your plate with brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and put nuts and seeds on your salads. Choose lean meats and fish if you are an omnivore, and beans and tofu if you are a vegetarian. And that plate? Make it a small one.

2. Be More Active

Two and a half hours of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. Running after kids counts. Gardening counts. Vacuuming counts. Dancing counts. Watching football on TV does not count.

3. Don't Smoke

Don’t smoke cigarettes—don’t smoke anything. That is easy for me as I have never smoked directly but, having a father and stepfather, both of whom smoked and died of lung cancer, I guess I had some secondhand smoke. So, I am sensitive about smoke and don’t want to be around it. It’s easier today than it used to be to avoid smoking in public places. This third essential is to try not to breathe other people’s smoke, industrial smoke, and car exhaust. Don’t breathe in wood smoke if you can avoid it and be careful not to pollute yourself with cooking smoke. Air pollution and cigarettes have the same bad effect on your heart—and your brain—and your increase in cancer.

4. Get Healthy Sleep

We stay up too late, have to get up too early, we check our phones in the middle of the night—what is that after all? Gosh. These are things we can change. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. That’s really important to rest your heart and your brain.

5. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Now, body mass index as a marker for overall health risks is a little controversial, but it’s a good way of thinking about a healthy weight. This is a calculation that takes in your height and weight. The optimal BMI is less than 25. You can calculate it online and your clinician probably calculates it for you with every annual visit. For some of us, this may be the hardest of the 8. Obesity itself increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure.  

6. Control Your Cholesterol

This is one of the easiest because there are great treatments to lower your cholesterol that are inexpensive and easy to take. But, you have to know your numbers and your clinician will help you get your cholesterol checked so you know your good and bad cholesterol. Diet and exercise can help a little bit, but medications like statins work much, much better.

7. Control Your Blood Sugar

This is very important and you should know if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic—close to getting diabetes, that’s the pre-diabetic part. There is an easy blood test for this called hemoglobin A1C, and your doctor can use this to screen you for diabetes. If you are pre-diabetic, then diet, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight can help you avoid becoming diabetic. If you are diabetic, you need to take medicine to control your blood sugars. High blood sugar is toxic to your body.

8. Control Your Blood Pressure

Eight is to control your blood pressure.  Again, this is good for your heart and your brain. Diet, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight can be helpful. If that isn’t enough, there are many medications for blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure—higher than 120 for the upper number and 80 for the lower number—you should protect your pump from working too hard and your brain from too much pressure. Take your blood pressure medicine.

Heart Disease Increases for Women 65+

The Essential 8 is for everyone—men, women and teens. As we talk about women, we used to think that we were immune from heart disease because heart attacks happened to guys. Actually, until a few years ago, women over the age of 65 had more heart disease than men. Well, there are more women than men as we get older. But, women are actually getting the word and taking better care of their hearts, and we’re seeing fewer heart attacks in women.

Now, I Googled the American Heart Association Life’s Essential 8, and I took my Heart Health Score. It includes what you eat and how you exercise and sleep, and some numbers like height and weight—don’t cheat—and cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. It also asks your own assessment about your stress and access to fresh food and a walkable neighborhood. It was pretty easy for me—took about eight minutes—because I know all my numbers. My fasting blood pressure, my hemoglobin A1C, my cholesterol, and my height and weight. So, I did pretty well for women my age—a pretty high score out of 100—not to brag. But, they gave me a gentle nudge—or, it wasn’t so gentle of a nudge—about my weight. All right already, I'm on it.

Okay, everyone. Take a minute, just take a minute… put your hand over your heart. No matter how old you are, make a little promise to the pump that keeps you alive. 8 Essential simple steps and a promise to take care. And thanks for joining us on The Scope.


updated: February 23, 2024
originally published: January 21, 2016