Talking to your cardiologist one-on-one or just promoting general health and wellness on your own, heart health tips aren’t terribly hard to come by. The deeper intricacies of heart health, though, are a little less well-known. Do you know the signs of high blood pressure, heart disease, or a heart attack? Do you know how many beats your heart tallies up in a day? What about what happens when you undergo cardiothoracic surgery?
Clearly, there‘s a lot to learn about your heart and health around it, and you don’t need to be a cardiologist yourself to understand the basics. Simply start with these heart health facts and then talk to your doctor about any concerns you might think of along the way. Paired with your own research, you’ll learn all you need to know to keep your cardiovascular health in tip-top shape.
To begin, it’s important to understand the basics of heart health and anatomy. How does blood flow to and from the heart? Then, consider what could go wrong and what’s done to fix it. What kinds of heart conditions occur, and how are they diagnosed and treated? And, finally, discover what can put you at high risk for heart disease and similar medical conditions, and what can be done to help mitigate these risk factors.
1. Daily Beats & Basics
It’s obvious that your heart beats each and every day. But do you know just how frequently it’s beating? Each day, your heart beats approximately 100,000 times, pumping thousands of gallons of blood in the process. A healthy resting heart rate is typically beating at between 60 and 100 heartbeats per minute, assuming a patient doesn’t have a health issue like tachycardia or bradycardia.
The average adult heart is about the size of a fist and weighs less than a pound. Small size notwithstanding, this organ packs a powerful punch. For instance, the heart has its own electrical system, called the cardiac conduction system, which keeps your heart beating.
The cardiovascular system is made up of the heart and blood vessels across a network of arteries and veins. Within the heart, there are two main coronary arteries, and four chambers—two atria and two ventricles. Beyond the basics of your heart, your heart health considers four primary elements: nutrition, physical activity, well-being, and training and defibrillators.
Your heart can be monitored by certain cholesterol levels and other stats that indicate heart health or a lack thereof. For instance, a cholesterol test or lipid panel measures the fat in your blood, including total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol (or “bad cholesterol”), high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol (or “good cholesterol”), triglycerides, non-HDL cholesterol, C-reactive protein (CRP), lipoprotein (a) or Lp(a), plasma ceramides, natriuretic peptides, and troponin T. Your cardiologist can consider these elements, as well as factors like your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, to determine your heart health treatment options.
2. Inside and Outside the Chest
Hopefully, you don’t have cardiac surgery on your immediate calendar. But, if you do (or you’re curious about the topic), you might be interested in knowing how the heart reacts to such procedures.
There are several cardiac diagnostic tests your care team, specialists, or individual health care provider might recommend, including an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, cardiac CT scan, nuclear scan, blood pressure test, cardiac MRI, and more. From there, they’ll determine whether certain procedures or medicines may be necessary to treat particular heart conditions.
In the United States, the most common cardiovascular diseases include coronary artery disease (CAD), heart arrhythmias (including tachycardia, bradycardia, and supraventricular or ventricular arrhythmias) heart failure, coronary heart disease, heart valve disease, pericardial disease, cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease), atrial fibrillation, and congenital heart disease.
Some common cardiovascular procedures include angioplasty, artificial heart valve replacement surgery, atherectomy, cardiomyoplasty, heart transplant, catheter ablation, stent placement, transmyocardial revascularization (TMR), and others. Invasive procedures may be necessary in order for a care team to access the man or woman's heart and chest cavity to make necessary repairs.
Did you know that your heart can beat outside of your chest for a short time? Because of its conduction system, a sort of natural pacemaker, it can continue beating while outside of the body or after brain death. Of course, your surgeon won’t just open your chest and ignore your heart while they operate—health care providers will be ready to keep your heart beating whether or not it's able to do so on its own.
3. Risk Factors vs. A Healthy Lifestyle
Are you considering your own heart health, in particular? In that case, it’s crucial that you learn the factors that affect your health, including risk factors and lifestyle changes that may promote your heart health. Early detection is key in these crises, so it’s important for you to consult your doctor with your medical history and any symptoms before they worsen.
For instance, your family history plays a significant role in your risk of heart disease and related medical conditions. So, if an immediate family member has a heart attack, cardiac arrest, blood clot, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol, clogged arteries (arterial plaque), or diagnosis of heart disease, you yourself will have a higher than average risk of developing these medical conditions.
On a more personal level, your risk factors for the development of heart disease or other heart conditions include age, sex, history of smoking, poor diet, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, high levels of stress, and poor dental health.
You can mitigate that risk, though, by managing your blood pressure, cholesterol, stress, or other risk factors and making healthy lifestyle changes, like maintaining a healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet will include ingredients like olive oil, healthy fats, whole milk, whole grains, omega-3 fatty acids, avocado, legumes, mackerel, herring, tuna, almonds, flaxseed, walnuts, brown rice, fresh fruit and vegetables, lentils, barley, yogurt, quinoa, and other heart-healthy foods. Even low calcium levels can negatively impact heart health! Be sure to talk to a nutritionist or other health care provider to create a heart-healthy diet that meets your needs.
Of course, these ingredients can create great flavors while maintaining a healthy heart. Delicious salads, fatty fish, lean meat, and elements of a Mediterranean diet may offer the nutrients and ingredients you need for heart health and wellness. You’ll even find plenty of snacks to promote a healthy heart. And, when you’re following dietary guidelines and portion sizes, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy your less nutritious favorites in moderation.
In addition to your diet, you should be sure to make other healthy choices for the sake of your heart, promoting health and preventing heart problems. Get enough sleep, get regular exercise and physical activity, and your heart will benefit. But, even then, it’s important to know the warning signs of serious problems with your heart, such as chest pain, trouble breathing or shortness of breath, and other signs of bad news for your heart.
And a final fun fact? A majority of heart attacks occur on Mondays (versus other days of the week), with Christmas Day (December 25) being the most common date. Naturally, this doesn’t mean you have to approach holiday festivities with an air of fear or concern; if your blood pressure numbers and related levels are within a healthy range, you practice healthy habits, and you don’t have any discomfort or cardiovascular symptoms, you likely have little to worry about. If you’re still concerned, reach out to your health care provider for advice or any applicable tests or screenings.
The heart is an incredible organ, managing biological processes that you may not even notice. Each artery, chamber, and element impacts your heart health and quality of life.
However, the heart, as impressive as it may be, can be fragile, too. On the one hand, the human heart can even beat outside of the chest; on the other hand, you may face heart conditions and the symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments, including medicines or procedures.
An individual person's risk depends on several factors, including their family history and habits like healthy eating, physical activity, and related actions. But, fortunately, there are actions you can take to improve your cardiovascular outlook, from weight loss and making smart food choices to lower blood pressure and taking low-dose aspirin.
You don’t need to have a diagnosis of heart disease, high cholesterol or blood pressure, heart failure, or another serious heart condition to seek out healthy ways to make a big difference in your heart health and overall wellness.
When in doubt, talking to your doctor is a good way to determine how your heart health currently stands and whether it may be affecting you in a negative way. If you‘re facing not-so-good heart health already, a cardiologist can help get you back on track and enjoy a better quality of life. Or, if you’re looking toward the future, a preventive medicine specialist can identify any major risk factor and guide you to better overall health from your cardiovascular system and beyond.