You might have heard the expression "You're as young as your arteries," and it's true. But keeping your arteries young can seem like a mysterious thing for many people, as much as they feel inundated by an unending stream of research findings. Now some clarity is at hand, and it's worth pausing to consider.
The cardiovascular continuum is a way of stepping back and thinking about cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), as being later complications in a long chain of events. These events begin with risk factors for cv disease, such as smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, diabetes and high blood pressure. The risks can start early, even in childhood. If these risk factors aren't addressed, your cardiovascular health gets progressively worse over a period of decades. It's a long but inexorable road, and at the end you won't be as young as your arteries but, sadly, as old.
That's the bad news. The good news is that since cardiovascular disease is mostly the result of having an unhealthy lifestyle, unhealthy choices can be turned around. Usually the process of slow, accumulating damage can be prevented. The earlier in the continuum it's caught and treated, the better your outlook.
Danger Signals Most of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease involve damage to your arteries. Some risk factors can be modified, and some can't. The more cardiovascular risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop cardiovascular disease.
• Unmanaged high blood pressure causes your arteries to stiffen and thicken to defend against the abnormally high pressure inside them.
• Poor diet, like eating too many refined carbs, trans fats and processed foods, wreaks havoc with your blood glucose levels and creates inflammation in your arteries.
• Unmanaged diabetes creates high levels of blood glucose (blood sugar). At high levels, glucose is toxic to your arteries and capillaries.
• Smoking allows toxins like carbon monoxide and nicotine into your delicate lung tissue and bloodstream, damaging your arteries and all the tissues of your body.
• Being physically inactive causes you to lose muscle tone, promotes weight gain, weakens your heart and lungs, and makes your joints stiff and prone to injury.
• Obesity increases the workload of your heart and creates systemic inflammation. Childhood obesity has become an epidemic.
Healthy Heart Steps As you can see, it's a good idea to take your cardiovascular health seriously. If you do, the chances are excellent that your heart and blood vessels will last you a long, healthy lifetime.
Here's what you can do to prevent cardiovascular disease or stop it in its tracks:
Lose weight. When your weight is at a healthy level, you have a lowered risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, some forms of cancer and many other disorders and diseases.
Eat whole foods. Avoid eating "white foods" -- white sugar, white flour, potatoes, white rice -- and trans fats, found in commercial baked goods and fried fast foods. Instead, eat whole grains and lots of whole fruits and vegetables, which are high in fiber and keep carbohydrates from breaking down too fast in your body. Choose lean proteins, like fish, lean meat and soy products, such as tempeh. Use olive oil for cooking and dressings. Nuts and seeds aren't low calorie, but they contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that fight inflammation and improve your blood lipid profile.
Quit smoking. Just one year after quitting, risk of coronary heart disease is reduced to half that of a smoker. You'll feel better, look better, smell better -- and you'll regain your sense of smell, too.
Be active. Exercise not only lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, it also reduces stress and helps prevent many other diseases, including cancer. Being physically active also regulates your metabolism, improves your body's use of insulin, helps keep your weight normal and benefits blood pressure. If you really don't like to exercise, there are plenty of others ways to get moving, like playing sports, dancing or taking the stairs.
Manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Both can damage blood vessels and cause heart disease if uncontrolled. If you have diabetes but control your blood glucose levels, you reduce your risk of having any cardiovascular disease event (such as a heart attack) by 42 percent. Know where you stand by having regular checkups and keeping track of your blood lipid levels and blood pressure readings.
Relax. For the sake of your health and happiness -- particularly your cardiovascular health -- make some form of relaxation a regular part of your daily schedule. When you relax, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to counter the effects of your sympathetic nervous system -- if your sympathetic nervous system is an accelerator, then your parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. Cortisol levels drop and your heart rate slows, blood vessels dilate, breathing slows and deepens, and blood pressure drops to normal.
Oxytocin enhances this process. It acts as both a hormone and a neuropeptide, released from the bloodstream and also by nerve centers in the brain. Oxytocin triggers reactions that enhance your ability to de-stress and also to behave calmly in stressful situations. Not only does it immediately relieve stress symptoms, like high blood pressure, but it's also been found have long-term calming effects -- up to three weeks. Animal studies have revealed that the heart tissue has oxytocin receptors. Dopamine is a hormone and neuropeptide associated with pleasure and reward. Evidence has been found of dopamine receptors in the human heart as well -- more evidence of the strong link between your brain and your heart.
There are many ways to relax. Meditation can be an adjustment at first, but continued practice will bring a sense of peace and joy that will carry over into your entire day. Meditation lowers levels of the "stress hormone," cortisol. Meditation has also been found to lead to increases in the size of areas of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking.
Yoga and Tai Chi can relieve stress while improving your strength and flexibility. Aerobic exercise can be a great stress reliever. It's been found to raise your brain's levels of endorphins, natural opiates that are responsible for the "runner's high."
Treat yourself well. Your cardiovascular health is in your own hands!