For a healthy life, start with your heart
2/10/2020 by Allison Ducharme-Smith, MD
This time of year a common question that comes up is, "What can I do to improve my health?" It can seem daunting to figure out where to start! Fortunately, the American Heart Association (AHA) created a simple map, "Life's Simple 7", to guide us on a healthy lifestyle. The 7 components we can tackle are:
#1 Manage blood pressure
Our blood pressure is made up of two numbers: the systolic (higher) number measures the pressure in the arteries during the heartbeat, the diastolic (lower) number measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart is resting between beats. Normal is <120/<80. High levels of blood pressure put strain and pressure on the heart, arteries and kidneys over time. Everyone's levels fluctuate during the day, but it's important to be aware of your range and maintain control of your blood pressure.
#2 Control cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat substance that comes from two sources — our body and our diet. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and HDL ("good" cholesterol). While the HDL ("good") cholesterol protects our artery walls, the LDL ("bad") cholesterol sticks to them, contributing to plaque build-up, which can clog our arteries. It is important to control our levels of cholesterol to prevent plaque build-up, which leads to heart disease and stroke.
#3 Reduce blood sugar
The carbohydrates and sugars we eat turn into glucose (sugar) in the stomach and digestive system. This glucose then enters the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone secreted by our pancreas that lowers blood glucose by helping cells take it in. With diabetes, glucose builds up in the bloodstream because cells are no longer taking it in as effectively. This can be due to genetics, increased weight and our diets. These high levels of blood sugar over time can damage the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. That's why it's important to keep our blood sugar at a normal level.
#4 Get active
The goal for activity is at least 150 minutes of moderate level physical activity per week (which equates to 30 minutes, five days a week) and muscle strengthening at least two days a week. Moderate-level physical activity means breaking a sweat and having difficulty maintaining a full conversation during activity.
#5 Eat better
Eating healthy is an important part of improving our health and staying healthy. The AHA recommends making smart choices to build an overall healthy dietary pattern. There's a right number of calories for you, based on your age, activity level and whether you're trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight. By reading nutrition labels, watching your calorie intake, cooking at home, aiming for vegetables/whole grains and avoiding processed foods, you can go far toward improving your health.
#6 Lose weight
Staying within a healthy weight range for your body type is essential to keeping your heart, brain and skeleton happy. It's important to understand your calorie intake and activity level in order to help you identify the changes you want to make.
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you eat. One way to do this is by understanding your body mass index (BMI), which is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height, and it can help you know you're at a healthy weight or if you need to lose weight.
#7 Stop smoking
If you smoke, the single best thing you can do for your health is to quit. Smoking can lead to numerous health risks including heart disease, stroke and cancers. The benefits are major and can be felt as soon as one day after you stop! There are many resources to help you quit, and we recommend talking to your health care provider to explore your options.
People with at least five ideal Life's Simple 7 metrics had a 78% reduced risk for heart-related death compared to people with no ideal metrics. And the benefits of these Life's Simple 7 metrics go beyond the heart — they can help you reduce your risk of other chronic diseases as well. In fact, if you can achieve each of these metrics, patients were found to have:
- 20% lower risk for cancer
- 62% lower risk for chronic kidney disease
- 43% lower risk for pneumonia
- 49% lower risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
The amazing thing about these metrics is that any person can make the changes. The steps aren't expensive, and even small improvements can make a huge difference. Start with one metric, and see how small steps can cascade into a healthy lifestyle.
If you'd like to learn more and discover how you can improve your health, visit My Life Check: Life's Simple 7. And talk to your health care provider about how you can optimize your health today!
Dr. Allison Ducharme-Smith is an internal medicine physician in Primary Care in Rochester/Kasson's Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM) and practices at Mayo Family Clinic Northeast in Rochester. Her interests include preventive medicine, women's health, chronic disease management and medical education.