Heart health to the max

When we think of someone at risk for a heart attack, we think of someone who doesn’t exercise, is stressed out, overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a negative attitude. These are all certainly causes and risk factors to bring on the “big one.”

But there are also other factors that even slim and active people need to consider. There is much you can do personally to combat cardiovascular disease and you may think that you’ve heard it all before. However, this article will dig a little deeper on some issues that are important in steering clear of heart disease and myocardial infarction.

One good piece of news is that the fitter you are in your 40s, the better your chances of avoiding cardiovascular disease is. And it is never too late to start a lifestyle!

Just because you’re slim, you exercise, you don’t smoke and you choose good low-fat foods, you meditate and have good social patterns, you may still be at a higher than normal risk for heart disease if you have high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol that is genetically mediated.

If these two traits run in your family, you must be even more diligent with your lifestyle choices. Even if your BMI (body mass index) is in the health range, you may be carrying high amounts of visceral fat — that is the fat that is carried deep within our abdomen and surrounds your vital organs such as your liver, pancreas and intestines.

This type of fat is particularly dangerous because it secretes inflammatory cytokines that disrupt many aspects of your metabolism causing substantial elevations in high blood sugar, high triglycerides, and overall inflammation.

BMI is simply a ratio of your weight to your height and does not describe how much of your body is fat, how much is lean and vital or where the fat is located. Dr. Neeland at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas is quoted in Health Magazine as saying that some cardiologists are considering focusing completely on a visceral fat measurement as a true indicator of risk for cardiovascular disease rather than using a meaningless measure such as the BMI.

Although the only precise method for determining visceral fat levels is the MRI, a good measure is the waist circumference. For women, the waist should be smaller than 35 inches and for men, it should measure less than 40 inches around. Another method for checking where your fat lies is to get a certified personal trainer to do your fat caliper readings.

Your social life affects your heart health. I’ve advised this many times throughout my career, “if your relationships are causing you overwhelming stress, it is time to evaluate those relationships.”

Studies have shown that loneliness and isolation are linked to approximately 30 percent greater risk of heart attack. Sometimes even though you are in a relationship, or have people around you, if those relationships are not supportive or uplifting, your heart still can suffer.

Apparently, loneliness and depression can cause an increase in the stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which leads to high blood pressure and increased inflammation. Additionally, if you are emotionally miserable, you are less likely to look after your own health and more likely to make bad health choices such as drinking to excess.

It can be very difficult to break away from toxic relationships, but it is imperative for good emotional and physical health to enjoy a healthy social life as well.

Another factor that many otherwise healthy, fit, lean and well-nourished people often overlook is their essential need for rest. Being deprived of restful sleep also raises levels of cortisol and inflammatory cytokines which as we now know raises blood sugar levels, and blood pressure.

People who get less than five hours of sleep a night have up to 50 percent more calcium build up in their coronary arteries and this is an early marker for heart disease. The best number of hours per night of restful sleep seems to be around seven to eight hours. More than that, you have a tendency to build up calcium levels as well.

Finally, a word on fat. The type of fat you take in is just as important as the amount. To optimize your heart health, you want to replace the saturated (usually of animal origin) fats with plant and fish derived fats. Most of the fat in your diet should come from avos, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish and the calories from fat should not exceed 30 percent of your total calorie count. Simple!

From my heart to yours … best of health!

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Dr. Jane Riley, EdD., is certified personal fitness trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, 212-8119 cell/text and www.janerileyfitness.com.

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