Photo: Levi Brown
Twenty-three years ago, back when I was doing my surgical training, I chose the heart as my specialty because I believe it's the most important human organ. Beating 100,000 times per day, this master pump circulates oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and immune system cells through every square inch of our bodies. I know you've heard the lifestyle recommendations for keeping your heart in peak condition—adopt a healthy diet, exercise regularly, steer clear of cigarettes—and hopefully you're following them. But there are other, surprisingly simple things you can do to help your heart help you; in recognition of American Heart Month, here are my top five:
Turn Down the Volume
Noise pollution is a fact of life, but chronic exposure to sounds as low as 70 decibels (equivalent to normal street traffic) can raise your heart rate, blood pressure, stress level, and risk of heart attack and stroke. What's more, a long-term study analyzing the incidence of heart problems among Finnish adults found an 80 percent higher rate of death from cardiovascular disease among women who had described themselves as being sensitive to sound. So do what you can to keep things quiet, especially at night when noise seems to have the greatest impact. If you live near a high-traffic area, keep the windows closed and wear earplugs whenever possible.
Take Care of Your Teeth
Left unchecked, bacteria like P. gingivalis can grow in your mouth and get into your bloodstream, potentially damaging vessels and causing clots. But by reducing bacterial growth, preventive dental care can lessen the risk of cardiovascular trouble in women by 33 percent. Keep regular dentist appointments twice a year (on average), brush at least twice a day, floss once a day, and munch on a carrot after a meal (a great way to help scrape away plaque).
Don't Take Calcium by Itself
A 2010 study found that over time, taking this supplement alone—which can promote calcification of the arteries—may increase your heart attack risk. Instead, balance your daily calcium intake (up to 600 milligrams) with magnesium (400 milligrams) and vitamin D (1,000 IU), which help promote cardiovascular health.
Get the Flu Shot
Influenza doesn't just mean coughs and chills; the infection can cause inflammation throughout the body, including in your arteries—where it can irritate plaque, which can potentially rupture and lead to a heart attack. Studies have found that the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of heart attack by up to 50 percent; getting your shot early (between September and mid-November) increases your protection.
Stay Away from BPA
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a widely used compound found in food and beverage containers. Evidence now suggests that exposure to this chemical may increase your risk for cardiac disease, possibly by short-circuiting the cells of your heart, leading to potentially deadly arrhythmias. Minimize your exposure to BPA by limiting your use of canned foods, avoiding No. 7 plastics, and using nonplastic containers in the microwave.
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