Just as I finished writing this article, which asks why a 30-year-old should care about their heart health, the news flashed across my screen: A stunning 34-year-old model, Katie May, the so-called Queen of Snapchat, had died of a stroke. It's speculated that this tragic occurrence may have been due to an injury she had during a recent photo shoot. A dissection of her carotid artery, or a tear in the artery that can lead to stroke, is possible. Whatever the cause, the incident highlights that, although rare, heart and blood vessel health matter at all phases of life.
I recently spent a weekend with a group of Millennials at a wellness think tank. You were strong, bold, f-bombing, and on your way to changing the world. I was inspired by your driven attitude to achieve great things. I was also encouraged by your calls for transparency and authenticity in all things.
You are 90 million strong and are a complex group. On the one hand, you can seem invincible and stay up late and party hard. On the other hand, you are exercising more, eating smarter, and smoking less than prior generations. You are using apps to track training data and searching online for healthy food options and ingredients. You are willing to spend big bucks on health classes and gear.
So why should a Millennial give a rip about a stodgy old tradition called American Heart Month in February? There are at least three big reasons:
1. Your food choices today matter.
What you eat matters to your health not only in the long term, but also within an hour of eating. In a classic study that should keep all Millennials out of fast-food hangouts, young volunteers eating a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin exhibited a rapid decline in artery function that peaked at four hours and lasted a full seven hours.
The researchers identified the high fat content of the meal as the guilty party causing artery damage and showed that taking vitamins C and E blocked the damage. Subsequent work has identified that processed meats also release dead bacterial products called endotoxins into the bloodstream that stun arteries.
If eating for a healthy heart doesn’t motivate you, then eat for great sex — because research shows your performance can also be diet-related. The take-home message is to be a food snob at any age. If it's crap, don’t eat it. Spend more and eat less, at all ages.
2. Your sleep quality matters.
I grew up in an era when working 36 hours nonstop as a medical resident was a badge of honor — at least until Libby Zion, an 18-year-old girl admitted to a New York hospital, died in 1984 due to alleged errors made by sleep-deprived residents.
Since then, many pieces of medical data point to the central role of an average of seven hours of sleep for heart health, weight control, and executive functioning. Thirty years after the Libby Zion tragedy, research shows that interrupted sleep is still causing health and work issues in Millennials.
It's important to approach adequate sleep as a core goal most days of the week. Go to bed at least seven hours before your alarm in a cool and quiet room. Wear an eye mask, use white noise, and cut off the caffeine at 2 p.m. The bottom line is sleep repairs and restores so that you can cut up the world again the next day.
3. Your lifestyle habits matter.
When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 and the entire DNA of a human was published for the first time, it was thought that we were on the verge of diagnosing and curing all medical ailments.
So far, this has not happened, and it was humbling to learn we had fewer genes than many insects. But what we can do is help control the output of our genes through our lifestyle choices. Research shows we can turn on health-promoting genes and turn off disease-promoting genes by deciding what we eat, how much we exercise, how we manage stress, and how social we are.
Want great skin and great health all at the same time? Then realize that your feet, forks, and fingers — exercise, diet, and smoking habits — can determine your fate. Add in a focus on sleep, sex, and love, and you have a plan to feel good every damn day.
There is no doubt that Heart Month is not exciting to most Millennials. After all, heart disease by and large occurs in older people. However, the habits you create in your 20s and 30s will determine in part whether your arteries are clean or clogged a few decades later.
Choose wisely what you eat, the brand of your soaps and shampoos, the water you drink, the air quality you breathe, and the hours of fitness and sleep that you get. Life should be spent following your passions — not visiting doctors and feeling under the weather. Give a F now about your health and reap the rewards of feeling good every day.