More than thirty million people in the United States are living with heart disease and it’s the leading cause of death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one person dies from cardiovascular disease every thirty-six seconds. COVID-19 is catching up now that news outlets report the coronavirus—also known as SARS-CoV-2—kills someone in the United States every forty seconds. People with preexisting heart disease who develop COVID-19 are more likely to have severe symptoms and more likely to die. And because the coronavirus can damage the heart, people with COVID-19 who don’t have preexisting heart disease can develop cardiovascular problems as a result of the infection.
February is American Heart Month and it’s a good time to renew commitments to better heart health. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused drastic changes to our lifestyle which have had significant effects on our minds and bodies. We’re less physically active and under a lot of stress. We’re struggling with isolation, fear, loneliness, sadness, and loss. We’re craving comfort foods, snacking more, making less healthy meal choices, and drinking more alcohol. But many of these things are under our control. Here are five ways to protect your heart and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease in the middle of a pandemic.
#1 | Eat Better
Diet makes a big difference in how healthy our hearts are. Eating too much sodium from processed foods can raise blood pressure and have damaging effects on the heart and blood vessels (as well as the kidneys and brain). Diets high in added sugars have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. But food can also be protective. Long-term studies have consistently linked a greater intake of fish and omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease—especially coronary heart disease and heart attack—and a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
You can reduce your risk for heart disease by eliminating processed foods and added sugars, and by eating fish and seafood at least twice each week. Use the Seafood Selector tool from the Environmental Defense Fund to find sustainable varieties that are high in omega-3s and low in mercury. A heart-healthy diet also includes vegetables and fruit, raw nuts and seeds, cold-pressed oils, legumes like lentils and beans, and meat, eggs, and dairy products from grass-fed and pasture-raised animals.
#2 | Drink Less
Low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol (one or two drinks per day) have actually been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. But greater amounts—whether on a daily basis or as part of binge-style drinking—are linked to an increased risk of heart conditions including hypertension, coronary heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, cardiomyopathy, and stroke.
If you don’t drink, don’t start now. If you do drink, limit yourself to one drink per day and make good choices. When it comes to cocktails, choose mixers without added sugar. When it comes to wine, choose red. Antioxidants like resveratrol in red wine have been shown to help prevent cardiovascular diseases by neutralizing free radicals and reducing platelet aggregation to counteract the formation of blood clots.
#3 | Move More
Exercise has been shown to have beneficial effects on the heart and blood vessels. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease. It can also slow the progression of preexisting conditions like atherosclerosis. People who exercise regularly have lower blood pressure and better circulation. They also have greater resilience to emotional stress. And the benefits of exercise start at surprisingly small amounts. An analysis of twenty-two studies that included more than 300,000 adults found that just an hour of walking or gardening each week was associated with lower rates of heart attack, stroke, and death. Researchers also found that people who did moderate exercise for just fifteen minutes per day lived an average of three years longer than those who were inactive.
Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine, but once you’ve been cleared, being moderately active for thirty minutes on most days is a good goal. During the pandemic, you may not feel comfortable exercising outside or at a gym, but it’s easy to exercise at home. Even if you don’t have any equipment you can find a wide variety of free online videos guiding you through workouts you can do in the comfort of your own home.
#4 | Relax Regularly
Studies show that chronic stress, social isolation, and loneliness are associated with the development of coronary heart disease. Among individuals with preexisting coronary heart disease, short-term stress can interrupt blood flow to the heart while long-term stress can increase the risk of heart attack and death. Fortunately, relaxation can help counter the effects of stress. Relaxation therapy has been shown to significantly lower heart rate as well as systolic and diastolic blood pressure. It’s also been used in the rehabilitation of patients with ischemic heart disease and the prevention of future events.
Relaxation exercises like meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing exercises are widely accessible and they can be practiced anywhere. Find one that resonates with you and practice it daily. If you need inspiration or instruction, there are dozens of apps and millions of online videos to choose from, and many of them are free.
#5 | Stay Connected
Studies clearly show that social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and death. For many people these have been unavoidable outcomes of physical distancing during the ongoing pandemic. If you aren’t spending time with loved ones in person, stay connected to your friends and family members through phone calls and video chats. Stay connected to your doctor as well—whether in-person or remotely—to maintain care, report blood pressure readings, and monitor any medications or supplements you are taking.
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Heart disease facts [Web page]. CDC website. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm Accessed January 30, 2020.
CNN (Cable News Network). Covid-19 now kills more than 1 American every minute. [Web page]. CNN website. https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/14/health/us-covid-deaths-300k/index.html Accessed January 30, 2020.
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