“I’ll have the filet mignon, well-done,” my husband, The Lawyer, announced to the waiter at a popular steak house with a look of self-satisfaction on his face. He was obviously quite proud of himself because he didn’t order what he really wanted—the prime Porterhouse.
“While you’re at it, dear, why don’t you ask for a side of creamed spinach and a buttered baked potato,” I suggested, “just in case you have any arteries left unclogged.”
The Lawyer, you see, has three drug-eluting stents already implanted in his coronary arteries.
I must officially go on record as saying that my husband is extremely aware of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. After all, he is married to a health and beauty writer. And stents aside, he’s in fairly good shape for a man his age. But that doesn’t always mean he makes the wisest decisions when it comes to his heart. At home, I make sure we eat extremely nutritious meals. But left to his own devices, not so much. On his way to his office in the morning, for example, he might just grab a muffin, the size that ate St Louis. Lunch at his desk is usually a simple salad—but with, I fear, enough dressing to satisfy a month’s worth of fat grams. And I shudder to even think about his business lunches and dinners.
He’s also big on coming up with excuses for not exercising. He basically blames his achy knees, a sore back and what he refers to as “negative buoyancy”–I’m assuming the legal term for heavy bones—which he feels makes it practically impossible for him to swim laps.
Alas, he attributes a genetic predisposition—and my constant nagging—as the primary culprits for his coronary clogs. Therefore, I must remind him (always, of course, in calm, constructive tones), that while genetics may load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger.
He is not alone. Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, president of the American Heart Association, tells me that more than one in three Americans has some sort of cardiovascular disease, which can include hypertension (or high blood pressure), coronary artery disease, heart failure or arrhythmias (irregularities of the heartbeat). And he attributes a new uptick in coronary crises to a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, diabetes, smoking and diets rich in processed foods. “One third of the time, people eat outside home,” says Tomaselli, professor of medicine and chief of the division of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University, “and that generally means more sodium and bigger portions.”
“People may not fear heart disease as much as cancer,” he adds,”but the prognosis is every bit as serious as solid tumors. It is, in fact, the number one cause of death due to illness in this country.And it affects men and women alike, although men generally can develop it up to 10 years, on average, earlier. For females, the onset can come after menopause, in part, due to the lack of protective effects of estrogen.”
What can we do to reverse this pernicious trend? Apparently, plenty. The American Heart Association has launched a national goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans. “We have to turn our attention from risk to healthy behavior,” Tomaselli concludes. “For a start, that would include what we call Life’s Simple 7: Get Active, Eat Better, Lose Weight, Stop Smoking, Control Cholesterol, Manage Blood Pressure and Reduce Blood Sugar.” (For more information about this program, click onto http://mylifecheck.heart.org.)
The following are 12 additional suggestions to put your heart back on the “beating” path.
In with the good. “If a person has had a coronary event in the first place, then clearly life changes need to be made,” says .Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Eighty percent of the time you can prevent a repeat performance by making healthy lifestyle choices. Start by eating better by incorporating fruits, vegetables, multigrains, legumes, beans, olive or canola oil, and fish into your diet, and get rid of all the saturated fats and simple ‘white’ carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, bagels and potatoes. Know that exercise is the best medication, and don’t forget to smile and breathe. Believe it or not, perspective is everything, and being pessimistic and hostile can be damaging to your heart. On the other hand, having a positive outlook and a “glass half full” approach can help your heart’s vitality and spirit.”
Take a stress test. “The most overlooked element in preventing heart disease and heart attacks is emotional stress,” says Dr. John M. Kennedy, director of preventive cardiology at Marina Del Rey Hospital in Marina Del Rey, Cal., and author of The 15 Minute Heart Cure.(You may have seen him on Dr. Oz and The Doctors.) It’s hard to measure stress, as it’s subjective: What may be stressful for one person might not affect another. But regardless of the trigger, the body responds exactly the same. The heart rate increases, the blood gets thick and sticky, blood pressure rises and our bodies become inflamed, setting the perfect storm for heart disease. The simple fact is, we need to get stress under control to stay healthy and productive. “Conscious breathing is what connects the heart and the brain and allows us into the conversation between the two organs,” says Kennedy. (For Kennedy’s innovative relaxation tool called The B-R-E-A-T-H-E™ Technique that will help heal your heart, go to www.Breatheforwellness.com.)
Read labels. Registered dietitian Rachel K. Johnson, a professor at the University of Vermont, suggests being vigilant about reading food labels, particularly to look for whole grains (whole wheat, brown rice or oatmeal should be the first ingredients), saturated fat and sodium. “Around 75 percent of the sodium we consume daily is not even from what we add, but what is found in pre-prepared andprocessed foods,” says Johnson, an American Heart Association spokesperson. Daily sodium intake should be kept at 1,500 mg—about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt—and saturated fats should be only about 7 percent of your dailycalorie intake. Added sugar is also a concern, as it affects blood cholesterol levels, Johnson says. Cut back by limiting sugary drinks including sodas, energy and fruit drinks, sweetened ices teas and lemonade.
Get active. Note to The Lawyer: Need hard evidence that exercise is good for the heart? Well, listen to what adult fitness and wellness expert Dr. Lynn Romejko Jacobs of Southern Methodist University, has to say: “I have worked in cardiac rehab, and it was so inspirational to see people who had all kinds of coronary challenges, by-pass surgery, heart attacks, high blood pressure actually get better and more healthy and fit through exercise. Research-wise, there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence out there, and there is no doubt in my mind, that exercise can strengthen your heart, lungs and blood vessels.” And there’s no magic to it. Just be as active as possible, four to five days a week, 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week.
The medicinal power of makeup. “Our goal is to help women look better on a personal and professional level so they can get back into life,” says JuE Wong, CEO of Astral Brands, who took the helm of the beauty company that makes PurMinerals, Alouette, and CosMedix products following the untimely death of her husband from a heart attack two years ago. Her company has a special affinity for women who have undergone a heart crisis. “I want them to know that looking better helps them feel better by giving them that extra boost.” She suggests using pink blush “to make your cheeks look as healthy and flushed as if you just ran up a flight of stairs” (note: you shouldalso run up that flight of stairs) and a swipe of lip gloss for a polished appearance. (In celebration of women’s heart health, Spry readers are invited to an exclusive savings from Pur Minerals and CosMedix. Enter the codeSPRY at checkout for a 20% discount. All purchases help support Go Red for Women.Shop online at www.cosmedix.com and www.purminerals.com. Offer valid through September 30, 2011.)
Make time to meditate. Dr. Vijaya Nair, author of Prevent Cancer, Strokes, Heart Attacks and Other Deadly Killers, is passionate about integrating Eastern approaches with Western science. ”For decades I have seen the amazing results of regular meditation practice, particularly in lowering symptoms of depression, anxiety, general distress, as well as significantly reducing blood pressure in individuals diagnosed with hypertension,” she says. Per Vijaya, here’s a quick technique to do a few times a day for calming a stressed and anxious mind and promoting a healthy heart: Place your dominant hand over your solar plexus—on the upper part of your abdomen, between your navel and ribs—and your other hand on the back of your head. As you breathe in, let your breath push out the hand at your solar plexus. As you breathe out, push your hand deeply in against your solar plexus to expel as much air as possible. Repeat for three to five minutes until your breathing is more rhythmical.
Laugh more. “After my quadruple heart bypass, I was told to hold a pillow against my chest when I felt a sneeze or cough coming on to lessen the severe pain they would produce,” says my friend Michael S. “I wasn’t cautioned about laughter, which came on with less warning but had the same effect. Heart crisis now over, I still instinctively hold my chest when I cough or sneeze–although not when I laugh. So I will always associate laughter with healing, and I try to associate with people who share my sense of humor. After all, laughter is contagious.”
Spend time in prayer. Studies have shown that religion, prayer and spirituality have a positive effect on everything from recovery from acute coronary events needing hospitalization to blood pressure, according to Dr. Keith Nemec, founder of the Total Health Institute in Wheaton, Ill. In one study, people in a coronary care unit who were prayed for experienced healing quicker with less complications than those who were not prayed for. “We see this as one heart, in prayer, reaching out to another heart, physically diseased, to help them heal,” Nemec says. Other research found that people who were involved in religious activities had significantly lower blood pressure than those who did not.
Take a heart-healthy vacation. So many of us are overstressed and desperately in need of a vacation, but we risk coming home heavier and more exhausted than before we left. “The secret is to create heart-healthy trips,” says Susie Ellis, President of SpaFinder, Inc. “Taking a truly focused ‘wellness vacation’ at either a destination spa or healthy resort can actually be life-transforming, jump-starting beneficial lifestyle changes that travel home with you. The right vacation could, in fact, start saving your life by giving you the tools to begin new, positive eating and fitness habits.” (Go to www.spafinder.com, where you can search “Spa Hotels/Resorts” by every possible price range and parameter, along with what activities, fitness, cuisine, etc., they offer.)
Stock your home with heart-healthy snacks. “We know that having consistently elevated blood sugars can triple your risk for heart attack and stroke, so it is important to watch your sugar intake,” says Dr. Howard Shapiro, author of Eat & Beat Diabetes with Picture Perfect Weight Loss. “I find that even though my patients may eat nutritious meals, their biggest challenge is to avoid those sugar snacks.” Snacks to have on hand include olives, baby carrots with hummus, guacamole or bean dip, nuts and seeds, nut butters and whole grain crackers, fresh and dried fruit (no sugar added) and sugar-free Fudgesicles, Popsicles and Creamsicles. “Soy,” he says, “is probably the most important food for decreasing the risk and severity of heart disease,” so also include edamame (green soy beans), roasted soy nuts and soy chips, soy yogurt and soy milk for shakes and smoothies.
Enjoy the rewards of a healthier heart. “Cardiac surgery is a traumatic experience. Optimistically, it can be an inflection point leading to a more enhanced life,” says Dr. Allan Stewart, director of aortic surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “Oftentimes we need a ‘wake up’ call to lead us to a healthier lifestyle. I received one from a former patient, encouraging me to run a triathlon with him, one year after his heart surgery. We did —he beat me!—and so began a new beginning for me, an overweight middle-aged, overworked heart surgeon.” Stewart lost 30 pounds and now serves as an example to his patients to use a traumatic event “as a springboard,” he says. “An additional patient ran the NYC marathon with me on the exact day of his heart surgery, one year later. This year there are more than 10 patients participating with me in endurance sports.”
Spread the word. Heart disease is still the number one killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year. This means women just like you and me—wives, mothers, sisters, friends—are dying at the rate of one per minute. It has, without a doubt, already touched you or someone you love, so help save a woman’s life today. The American Heart Association’s Tell Five Friends campaign asks you to bring your network into their network. Tell five women that you want them to live and that they can help stop heart disease in our lifetime by sending them a simple email message. Give them the power to save their lives today.