By Jeff Harr, RCEP, Cardiopulmonary Rehab Coordinator

February 2014 was the 50th anniversary of “American Heart Month”. This formal designation began in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1960, about 662,000 Americans died each year because of heart disease and 924,000 died from all forms of cardiovascular disease combined. In 2010, those figures were below 600,000 and 784,000, respectively. Those figures, however, do not tell the whole picture of the progress in the fight against heart disease since the population of the United States has increased by 129 million people between 1960 and 2010.

Jeff Harr, RCEP
Jeff Harr, RCEP

There are a number of reasons for this improvement. There are many new technologies, treatments, and medications and more information on diet and physical activity is available. If you have wondered where you stand with regard to your heart health or if you could do more for your heart health, the American Heart Association has created “My Life Check” and the “Simple Seven” tools. These simple-to-use tools can help you evaluate your general heart health. The tools only take a few minutes to use, and complete, all you need is access to the internet. Go to the American Heart Association’s website and click on “About My Life Check”. Once you have signed in you will be asked a few questions about your current health. You will be asked for three measurements of your blood characteristics and four things you do or don’t do that impact your everyday health.

The three measurements you need will be your current blood pressure, your most recent total cholesterol reading and your blood sugar level. The four things you will be asked about your everyday health are; your smoking status, your weight, weekly level of physical activity and diet questions. The “My Life Check” assessment will then evaluate each area. Within a few minutes, you will know how you’re doing with each one of Life’s Simple Seven. It also helps you to choose your next steps to improve in each area. Life’s Simple Seven gives you a personal heart score from 0-10. Number ten is ideal and means that you have the greatest potential for a heart healthy life and the lowest possible risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Each of these Life’s Simple Seven areas affect your heart health. If you have hypertension or high blood pressure, your risk of having a heart attack or stroke increases. Seventy-seven percent of patients with a first stroke have high blood pressure and 69% of patients with a first heart attack have high blood pressure. High blood sugar levels increase your chance of both heart attack and stroke. Heart disease and stroke are the number one causes of death and disability among people with type 2 diabetes. Cigarette smoking also increases your risk of heart disease and stroke by two to four times, not to mention it also increases men’s risk of lung cancer 23 times and women’s lung cancer risk by 13 times. Being overweight or obese is tied to some of the leading causes of preventable death, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. High cholesterol levels lead to plaque or blockages inside arteries which is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Finally, your diet and physical activity level have a big impact on all of the above.

The physical activity question asks how much moderate or vigorous aerobic activity you do each week. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate activity. That is at least 30 minutes a day, five days per week. Of course the more-the better, this aids in weight loss, lowering blood pressure, lowering blood sugar and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, etc. Physical activity has many benefits which would fill up a whole article by itself.

The dietary questions are focused on five areas. They are number of fruits/vegetable per day, amount of whole grains per day, number of servings of fish per week, how much added sugar per week (sodas, other sugary drinks or foods) and amount of sodium (salt) per day. These all relate to the above risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Knowing your numbers of these “Simple Seven” areas can have a big impact on your health and quality of life as you age. Do not wait until a heart attack or stroke affects you to make changes. Making changes now will allow you to avoid a major health crisis in the future. Find out what your numbers are and take the “My Life Check”.

Your results are a great way to start a conversation with your healthcare provider about how you can improve your heart health. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital can assist you with making changes in the “Simple Seven”. Physicians will treat and help manage your blood pressure, blood sugar and/or cholesterol levels. Dieticians can help with instructions for weight loss or dietary changes. There are smoking cessation classes and our Cardiac Rehabilitation program can help if you do develop heart disease. Please give this assessment a try and see if you can take additional steps for a heart healthy life.

Jeff Harr, RCEP is a certified exercise physiologist and the coordinator for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s nationally certified Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation programs. Jeff can be reached at 802-257-8331.

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