A Cardiologist's Checklist For Protecting Your Heart

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In 2016 we were reminded—over and over again—that our heart and vascular system can be fragile and that caring for our hearts requires some daily thought and energy. While we lost hundreds of thousands to heart disease in 2016 (in the USA alone) the celebrities grab our attention and force us to consider our own health for at least a few moments.

In March we lost Garry Shandling to a pulmonary embolus, in December we lost Alan Thicke to a dissected and ruptured aorta that occurred while playing hockey with his son and shortly after, Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack on an airplane with a cardiac arrest that she would not survive. And while each of these causes of cardiopulmonary deaths involve different factors, they all remind us of what we need to do—and what we need to avoid—to have a healthy heart.

Check this list to see how you may be harming your heart, and then set some heart healthy intentions for 2017!

1. Don't sit too much

Prolonged sitting is now firmly associated with heart disease and premature aging of arteries. In a study using heart CT scans and physical activity records of more than 2,000 adults living in Dallas, each hour of sitting per day was associated with a 14 percent increase in coronary artery calcification. Coronary calcification is a sign of damaged heart arteries and can increase the risk of a heart attack. Standing desks, apps, and timers are all necessary tools in today’s sedentary society.

2. Get restful sleep

Sleep is restorative and your pillow is the best anti-aging pill that exists. In a study that compared people sleeping poorly (and less than six hours a night) to those sleeping soundly for seven hours, the risk of coronary heart disease (clogged arteries) was shown to be 79 percent higher! Sleep more soundly in 2017 using mindfulness meditation, smart phone apps, or adaptogenic herbs.

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3. Go to yoga

There are many benefits to yoga but one of the most powerful is spinal flexibility. Unknown to most are studies that flexibility of the spine correlates to flexibility of important arteries in the body. My favorite practice for the spine are the 5 Tibetans which you can learn online with free video demonstrations.

4. Sweat

You can run but you can't hide from toxins in plastics, cosmetics, and food. Heavy metals like mercury and lead are particularly damaging to the heart and arteries. Some kind of sweating practice—as in exercise or better yet infrared sauna—can help eliminate toxins efficiently according to many research studies.

5. Have sex

Most sexual encounters raise the heart rate and blood pressure significantly. And fortunately, studies show that the more frequent the sex, the lower the risk of heart events. So get busy in 2017.

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6. Avoid diet soda

If you are watching your weight by drinking a few cans of diet soda a day, you are trading evil for evil and increasing your risk of heart disease. A massive study showed that women that drink two or more diet sodas a day have a major increase in heart disease and death. Water, unsweetened tea, green juice, and black coffee should be the items on your list.

7. Get regular check-ups

You may be young and feel invincible, but even a healthy lifestyle does not make you immune to heart disease—beginning even in your teens and 20s. Along with lifestyle choices like diet, smoking, and exercise there are genetic factors that play a role in heart health. See a health care provider to check your blood pressure, an EKG for your QT interval, and get lab work done for fasting glucose, vitamin D levels, a cholesterol panel, lipoprotein a and homocysteine measurements, and an assessment of inflammation by a test called hs-CRP. If you are over 40 with risks for heart disease, get a coronary artery calcium scan and know your score.

8. Quit smoking

Maybe it's too obvious to include this on the list, but smoking puts you on the fast track to a heart attack. And although smoking rates are dropping, about a quarter of millennials still smoke which is the highest percentage of any age group. Quit now.

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9. Manage your stress

Stress has been linked to heart disease for decades and the introduction of smart phones and wi-fi hasn't made life any more relaxing. 24/7 isn't just a tag phrase but a credo for many young people, and the stress and accompanying adrenal fatigue can age arteries fast. Learn a few strategies to manage stress that you can use on a daily basis and take a technology detox at least a few hours a week.

10. Avoid bacon, hot dogs and pepperoni

The past few years has been a rough one for processed red meats, a food group that so many are in love with. In 2015 the World Health Organization announced definitive data that processed red meats cause cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Years before that the same foods were associated with a spike in heart disease and heart attacks. For the suffering of animals, the destruction of our planet, and for your heart: bypass the bacon.

Getting the public to focus on heart disease is a difficult task because it develops silently over years, often without warning. I remind people that just like wrinkles around the eyes, there are wrinkles of the heart arteries. But the aging of our heart can be measured and prevented, so keep this checklist on hand and make your heart health an important part of the year to come!

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