Have a heart-to-heart

(Daniel Villeneuve/ISTOCK) (Daniel Villeneuve/ISTOCK)

Your ticker is working for you every second of every day, so it deserves more than a few measly weeks of recognition a year. After American Heart Month ends on Friday, don’t forget to think about how you can make it happy, healthy and, well, hearty. Gary H. Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, has a few pointers:

Diet: Looking after your heart starts with what you put in your mouth. Gibbons is confident we already know the basic meal plan for success: low-fat protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. That’s essentially the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which the institute promotes. New studies back up the idea that it’s especially important to limit refined sugar.

Gibbons looks forward to gaining more insight into the relationship between diet and coronary heart disease. Certain foods may alter the bacteria in the gut in ways that affect metabolism, Gibbons says. Once we find those relationships, we can do even more to improve what’s on the menu.

Age: “What the research is indicating is that it’s never too late to start living a heart-healthy lifestyle,” Gibbons says. So you can’t write yourself off as a lost cause.

But don’t wait just because you can. Childhood risks track into adulthood. That’s why, Gibbons notes, “It’s important among the very young to instill healthy habits,” such as exercising regularly and eating well.

Gender: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women. “But symptoms can be different,” Gibbons says. Women have a tendency to dismiss signs of a heart attack as indigestion.

Risk Factors: Diabetes, high blood pressure and tobacco use have been identified as factors in heart disease. Why? They cause inflammation, which scientists are now targeting directly. Gibbons describes the problem as similar to an allergic reaction — the body’s protective mechanisms can make it unwittingly participate in clogging arteries.

The institute has begun testing an inexpensive drug commonly used for rheumatoid arthritis to see if it might treat heart disease. While waiting for the results, you can try other proven strategies. “Stopping smoking, being physically active, adopting a healthy lifestyle — it works,” Gibbons says.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.

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