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Listen to Your Heart

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Surely it is no coincidence that February, the month of Valentine’s Day and construction paper hearts, is also American Heart Month. For more than 50 years this federally designated day has been celebrated to create awareness of heart health. This year’s focus is on hypertension, or as most of us refer to it, high blood pressure.

Hypertension is caused when the force of blood against artery walls is too high over the long-term. Here’s a quick review of Blood Pressure 101: the top number of your blood pressure reading measures systolic pressure, that is, the pressure in your arteries every time your heart beats. The bottom number measures diastolic pressure, or the pressure in the arteries between heart beats. If a heart regularly pumps too much blood the pressure increases and, over time, can cause coronary disease.

Other factors also can contribute to high blood pressure. Sometimes plaque, which is made up of cholesterol deposits, can build up in arteries and cause them to narrow, which increases pressure. Or, some health conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, sleep apnea, kidney disease and others contribute to high blood pressure, as can some medications.  And sometimes it’s genetics – if your parents and grandparents had high blood pressure, you should definitely keep an eye on your own!

Further contributing to the risk is that many people don’t have any symptoms of high blood pressure, which explains why it is called the “Silent Killer.” Symptoms can build over time and some, such as dizziness or facial flushing, can seem like minor issues or are passed off as being attributed to other less serious causes. Because of this, people who do not regularly check their blood pressure or visit their doctor may not even know they have high blood pressure. This is one reason it is so important to schedule annual check-ups.

Although there is no cure for high blood pressure, it can be well-managed both with and without medications. A major contributing factor to developing high blood pressure is weight – the more your weight goes up, the more likely your blood pressure will, too. In addition to weight loss, changes to diet can help. Reducing sodium and increasing potassium can have positive benefits, and drinking caffeine and alcohol in moderation are also a plus.

On a more upbeat note, blood pressure can go down in as little as a few weeks with a loss of just two to three pounds. If you add about a half hour of daily exercise, you can reduce blood pressure even further. The important thing with both diet and activity changes is to be consistent. Slow and steady is definitely the way to go, and you should increase your effort only as you feel more comfortable and capable.

February will come and go but being Heart Smart is a year-round effort. Take a moment at the start of each day to think about a small change you can make that day – or every day! – to move closer to your health goals. Your construction paper hearts will brighten up your home, but your real heart is what keeps it running!

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