Heart health

"If at first you don’t succeed, try again,'' health experts say. "Little changes add up to big changes."

Take a cue from Cupid during February and set your sights on the heart – pint-sized bow and arrow not required. Instead, show your four chambers some love with a five-pronged approach to better heart health.

1. Quit smoking

“Quitting smoking is beneficial at any age,” says Erin Smith, health promotions specialist for the American Lung Association in Nebraska. “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Each quit attempt a person makes, they learn something new about themselves.”

Extinguishing the habit reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer, and can add as much as a decade to life expectancy.

Not sure where the journey toward stopping should start? Smith recommends:

• Writing down the specific reasons you want to quit.

• Throwing away all tobacco products.

• Utilizing available programs and resources. Those include the American Lung Association’s Lung Helpline & Tobacco Quitline (1-800-LUNGUSA), and the Nebraska Tobacco Quitline (1-800-784-8669), which can connect smokers to an expert Quit Coach, an easy-to-use Quit Guide workbook and other resources.

2. Increase physical activity

Starting an exercise program may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Brisk walking counts as moderate-to-vigorous exercise. Research, according to the American Heart Association, shows it can significantly impact your health by lowering your chances of heart disease.

Current government guidelines call for at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) each week. To help channel your energy, see if you qualify for SilverSneakers, a health and fitness program designed for adults ages 65 and older. The program, included with many Medicare plans, offers discounted or no-cost memberships at a number of gyms and YMCAs in the metro area.

3. Embrace a heart-healthy diet

Molly Seibel, a Hy-Vee registered dietitian, has a recipe for better heart health. It includes:

• Following a low-sodium diet, which can help lower your blood pressure and, subsequently, your risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends taking in less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. “It’s important to look at nutrition labels. The majority of the sodium we consume is present in processed foods and doesn’t always come from salt added from the salt shaker,” Seibel says.

• Including soluble fiber in your diet to help lower cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds cholesterol and removes it from the body before it is absorbed into the bloodstream, Seibel explains. By eating foods such as oatmeal, beans, chia seeds and apples, you’ll be able to hit the recommended 10 to 25 grams of soluble fiber each day.

• Consuming heart-healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are the heart-healthy fats that can lower triglycerides and improve your cholesterol. Prime sources include salmon, tuna, sardines, halibut and lake trout. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings a week of omega-3-rich fish.

4. Practice good oral hygiene

Untreated tooth decay and gum infection have been shown to dramatically increase a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke and more.

“Bacteria from your mouth can easily get into the bloodstream causing inflammation of your arteries. This inflammation puts you at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Dan Beninato, DDS, owner of Omaha’s Premier Dental.

Prevention is as straight-forward as brushing your teeth after meals, flossing at least once a day, using mouthwash to help reduce plaque, and going for  twice-annual dental check-ups.

5. Bring in professional backup

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska (BCBSNE) offers its members, at no additional cost, a HIPAA-secure mobile health app. All users are assigned a BCBSNE nurse care manager – a health coach – who helps develop a personalized wellness plan to treat or prevent chronic illness, including heart disease. In the areas of nutrition and activity, for example, health coaches are able to encourage and reinforce the importance of small, positive changes.

“Those little changes start adding up to big changes in areas like weight loss and stress management,” says Norine Howard, BCBSNE director of care management. “The goal is self-efficacy; people being empowered to take on these new lifestyle changes themselves.”

Learn more about resources and health plans from BCBSNE at NebraskaBlue.com.

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