Features January 2016 Issue

7 Steps to a Healthier Heart

Strategies aimed at managing blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing stress, improving sleep and taking control of other risk factors will pay off in 2016.

If you’re still in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, why not resolve to do some positive things for your heart in 2016? Not sure where to start?

What follows are seven tips that go beyond the usual “exercise and eat right” advice, but are still strategies that you can implement today and continue throughout the year.

“It’s important to remember that your heart health is in your hands,” says Leslie Cho, MD, co-section head of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, and editor-in-chief of Heart Advisor.

Your healthcare providers can prescribe medications, administer screenings and help you make the best decisions for your health. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to follow through.

“You should feel empowered to know that the choices you make are what make the difference,” Dr. Cho adds.

2016 heart monitor

So to make some wise heart choices this year, here’s a list of resolutions for your consideration:

➊ Buy and use a home blood pressure monitor.

Wrist and fingertip monitors may be easier to use than upper-arm cuff monitors, but they yield less reliable results, according to the American Heart Association. And make sure the device you purchase has been validated by one or more of the following organizations: Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation; the British Hypertension Society; and/or the International Protocol for the Validation of Automated BP Measuring Devices.

You should also make sure the cuff fits. If you need a larger cuff, ask at your local pharmacy or medical supply store. And to make sure you’re using the monitor correctly, take it to your doctor at your next visit. A nurse may be able to show you how the machine works.

Once you have your own blood pressure monitor, be sure to use it regularly. Talk with your doctor about how often you should check your blood pressure and what time of day you should make those checks. You may be advised to get readings at various times to help make sure you’re not experiencing significant changes in your numbers. If you do notice changes, be sure to keep a record for your doctor, and know what readings (high or low) should prompt a 911 call.

Learn to meditate.

If you’ve never tried to meditate, make this the year you learn. Reducing stress can help lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and it can help you avoid unhealthy behaviors the stress can bring on. Responding to stress by smoking, drinking alcohol and overeating are common, but destructive ways of trying to de-stress.

Instead, take a class in meditation or in other relaxation techniques, such as focused breathing. Just know that meditation doesn’t mean sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours. You can meditate in a chair for 15 minutes if you want.

“Meditation can be very helpful,” Dr. Cho says. “But you should also check out behavioral modification apps, like Breathe2Relax, which help you relax and reduce stress.”

Breath2Relax is an application for your smartphone or other computer device. It teaches you breathing techniques that calm the nerves and slow your heart rate. There are several similar apps, including some that take you on guided meditations. Many are free, so try some out and choose the ones you like best.

Get help counting calories.

In keeping with the apps approach, check out the many apps designed to help you develop a more heart-healthy diet.

“There are diet apps that monitor your caloric intake and salt intake,” Dr. Cho says. “They can help keep you on track, and they can educate you about your food choices.”

senior table tennis exercise

Thinkstock

Do more than just walk.

Walking is great exercise, make no mistake. And if that’s all that your schedule and circumstances allow, then walk as much as you can every week.

But to make your workouts more interesting, find a variety of active outlets in 2016. Try pickleball, a tennis-like game that’s becoming more popular across the U.S. Sign up for a dance class­­—ballroom, swing or even tap. Look for Senior Games programs in your region that offer competition in sports ranging from track and field and swimming to table tennis and fencing.

Competing against or working out with others not only keeps your motivated, but will provide more socialization, which is especially important as you get older.

Stick to a wake-up schedule.

You hear a lot of advice about getting more sleep: Avoid caffeine late in the day. Don’t look at a computer screen right before trying to fall asleep. Keep your bedroom cool and very dark.

Those are all great tips. Another common one is to go to sleep at the same time every night. That’s helpful, but it can be a tough strategy to follow consistently.

But if you can’t always control when you go to sleep, you can control when you arise. Getting up at the same time every day can actually help you set your internal clock, and it may help you settle in on time to go to sleep each night. Try it (and those other tips) and see how it goes. A good night’s sleep is an often overlooked aspect of health, but it’s important for a healthy metabolism, blood pressure, and more.

Too little sleep can increase your odds of developing heart disease by nearly 50 percent, while too much sleep can hike up the odds by about 38 percent. Aim for seven to eight hours a night.

Become statin savvy.

Lowering your cholesterol can sometimes be done with a healthy diet, smoking cessation, and more physical activity. But for many older adults, a statin or other cholesterol-lowering medication is necessary to get your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol under control.

Because statins are so widely prescribed, and because there are currently seven statins available in the U.S. market, do yourself a favor and learn more about these powerful drugs. Learn which statins have generic versions and inquire about these options when you are prescribed a statin. Talk with your doctor about alternative statins you might take if the one you were prescribed didn’t quite do the job, or led to side effects, such as muscle pain.

Laugh more.

That’s right. The old line about laughter being the best medicine isn’t a worthless cliche. Research suggests that a good laugh can help blood vessels dilate by up to 22 percent, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure.

It may be hard to find something to laugh about some days, but thinking about better heart health in 2016 should at least put you in a good mood.

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