While February means lots of love letters for Valentine’s (and Galentine’s!) day, it’s also quite aptly heart health month. And since heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it’s vital to ensure this hardworking organ receives some TLC.
The more you invest in your health, the more care you give your heart. Everything we do—from exercise to the foods we eat and our stress levels—contributes to our overall heart health. And the longer your heart stays beating and proud, the more laps around the sun you can take.
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We spoke to leading experts on why investing in your health is so important—and more importantly, what easy, everyday changes you can take to make a real difference in your overall wellness.
Make time for mindfulness
Every life stage (including your “carefree” 20s and “peaceful” retirement) can bring a certain amount of stress. Fatigue and mental angst are normal, particularly when we have busy schedules that require balancing professional and personal responsibilities and expectations. However, untreated high levels of stress can raise your heart rate and blood pressure. This, of course, places wear and tear on your heart and can be damaging or even deadly over time. That’s why it’s crucial to find time for mindfulness, notes to Dr. Bethany Doran, a board-certified cardiologist and the founder of Enabled Healthcare.
“I find that investing some time every day—whether just a few mindful breaths in the morning for those days that I have a super busy schedule or 10 minutes to watch a guided meditation in the middle of my workday—helps tremendously with focus, calming, and even decreasing my heart rate or blood pressure,” she explains. “Mindfulness can ‘retrain’ the neurons in our brains and those found in other organs like our heart and our gut to relax. This can allow our heart rate to decrease, and even increase blood flow to our gut to improve digestion.”
Eat healthy, organic foods
In your everyday life, you’re making countless choices that contribute to your heart health. Though we all need a little sugar fix here and there, over time, the choices we make in our diet—like foods that are high in fat or cholesterol—can cause lasting damage to our blood vessels and organs, including our heart, eyes, brain and kidneys, warns Dr. Doran.
Doran says the best diet for prosperity and vitality is a Mediterranean palette filled with nuts, green leafy vegetables, lean meats and olive oil. “This is extremely helpful in decreasing cholesterol and lowering inflammatory molecules that can damage our bodies and cause calcium deposits to build up—which eventually lead to stiff arteries and hypertension,” she says.
Personally, Dr. Doran says she’s found that eating a diet lower in red meat and higher in nuts, lentils, tofu, and olive oil gives her more energy and balance during the day. Also, if you can afford it, consider buying organic to decrease harmful pesticides often found on produce.
Get your hormones checked
If you’re a person with a period, you already know firsthand how hormones play into your mood, energy levels, and body comfort. As we age, hormones become even more essential to manage, particularly for family planning and when we enter menopause.
Investing time and energy to optimize your hormonal balance throughout your lifecycle can play a significant role in your overall health, says Dr. BreAnna Guan. As an example, in your 20s and 30s, many women battle polycystic ovarian syndrome, the leading hormone disorder in reproductive-age women. It’s also the most common cause of infertility. “It is characterized by irregular periods, acne, facial hair and polycystic ovaries,” Dr. Guan explains. “Women with PCOS are at an increased risk for the development of metabolic syndrome, which contributes to endothelial dysfunction, a marker of CVD risk. Several studies have shown subclinical atherosclerosis in women with PCOS.”
Then, when you hit menopause, your risk for cardiovascular disease rises. “This is due to the reduction in the sex hormone estrogen. Estrogen supports cardiovascular health through various mechanisms, and its loss is associated with changes including increases in visceral body fat, reduced glucose tolerance, abnormal lipids, higher blood pressure (BP), increased sympathetic tone, endothelial dysfunction, and vascular inflammation,” she explains.
Depending on your age and any symptoms or conditions you’re experiencing, book an appointment with your OB-GYN or a hormone specialist to help you better understand what you need more or less of in your diet, lifestyle, and more. “When you take steps to optimize and understand your hormones, you’ll find that instead of giving up time, energy and resources to suffering from your hormones, they can actually be used to your advantage: aka, become your superpowers,” Dr. Guan says.
Make primary and preventive care a priority
We know, we know—you have a lot going on! There’s a birthday party to plan. A house to keep clean. A vacation to take. Kiddos to feed. But regardless of how overbooked and overextended your calendar may be, don’t skip your annual physical. And if something feels wonky in your body, talk to a doctor ASAP, Dr. Doran urges. Not only are more primary and preventive care visits covered by insurance no—they can quite literally extend your years on the planet.
When it comes to exercise, we should adapt a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality. In other words, if you stop moving, staying active becomes harder and harder as you age. That’s why Dr. Guan says it’s vital to live a life of movement. And this means investing in things that get you moving.
“This can be comfortable shoes to wear around the block or tickets for you and your family to backpack through all the greatest museums on a long summer trip,” she continues. “The more time we spend moving, being active outdoors and enjoying experiences with our friends and family, the better we’ll feel, and the stronger and the fresher our minds will be.”
It’s also worth noting that new experiences and movement are one of the best ways we can support our cognitive and long-term health. “Embarking on daily mini adventures or going out to the remote reaches of the earth will inspire you and keep you young and thriving,” she adds.
Consider opening an HSA
In addition to eating well, remaining active and managing stress, part of investing in your longevity is preparing yourself for future health-related expenses. If you are in relatively good health and have access through an employer or health insurance marketplace, a high deductible health plan (HDHP) could be the right option for you, says Diana Yáñez, CFP, RLP, the founder and CEO of All the Colors.
“This option gives you access to a Health Savings Account (HSA) that gives you a triple tax advantage: money added is not taxed, and if you use it later on for medical reasons, including paying for health insurance, withdrawals will not be taxed, including earnings,” she explains. “Money added to an HSA can be invested in stocks and bonds for a higher return when the money will be invested for at least five years.”
Plan how you want to live a long life
The reality is that most people don’t like to talk about money, but avoiding it can be incredibly unhealthy for our stress levels (and the stress levels of the family members who love us), says Arvette M. Reid, client services director of Lifecare Affordability Plan. A helpful first step can be identifying and educating the person who will manage your finances if you become less able because of a healthcare event or general aging issue.
While you’re healthy and working is the time to plan how you want to live when you retire and how much money you could potentially need for healthcare expenses. After all, according to LongTermCare.gov, there is a 70% chance of needing long-term care after age 65.
“Understanding your financial picture and planning where the funds will come from in the event you need care is a sign of financial wellness and thriving,” she continues. “People who thrive are decision-makers, connected to others, and self-aware of their financial and health circumstances. They accept their situation, realize things might happen, and are open to discussing their finances, family, and health now and in the future.”
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