Why You Need to Listen to Your Heart – Literally

Heart Health Awareness is More Important Than You Think

By Frankie Wallace

While we spend most of our time in February focusing on heart-shaped boxes of candy and cards, it’s actually National Heart Month for a reason far more important than Valentine’s Day. National Heart Month was created for people to learn more about heart health and how to reduce your risk of heart disease. 

Not only is it the perfect time to focus on the progress we’ve made when it comes to heart research, but to continue to spread awareness about the importance of heart health and diseases. 

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., with someone dying of a cardiovascular issue every 37 seconds. Needless to say with statistics like those, we have a long way to go with continual research and awareness. 

Let’s take a look at some of the notable history of heart health research, and what still needs to be done. 

Paving the Way to Where We Are Today

It’s nearly impossible to say when heart disease was discovered or when cardiovascular health even became a priority. Leonardo DiVinci was said to have investigated coronary arteries, while William Harvey (physician to King Charles I) is known for discovering that blood moves throughout the body in a circulatory manner, coming from the heart. 

In more recent history, notable figures in cardiovascular health include Karl Landsteiner, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering that people have different blood types; matching blood types correctly would lead to successful blood transfusions. Nina Braunwald also changed the face of medicine as a surgeon at Bellevue Hospital in New York from 1952-1955. Braunwald is credited with leading a surgical team through the first implantation of a prosthetic heart — one she also designed! She was only 32 years old at the time. Unfortunately, Dr. Braunwald didn’t often receive the credit she deserved and even struggled to find job opportunities while balancing time with her family. 

Since 1949, the American Heart Association has put more than $4.5 billion into heart health research, with no signs of slowing down. That money has been used to discover incredible breakthroughs that have saved countless lives over the years, including: 

  • Fixing heart defects in newborn babies
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications
  • The benefits of CPR to provide blood flow
  • Stents to open up blocked arteries

Because heart conditions are still so prevalent across the country, research continues to be a priority. The AHA is committed to consistency, with research breakthroughs happening all the time. In 2019, AHA-funded researcher Gregg L. Semenza was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Semenza’s research led to the discovery of how oxygen cells impact physiological functioning. The findings can be used to fight many acute conditions, including cardiovascular disease.  But if history has taught us anything it’s that we can expect continual breakthroughs in heart health for years to come. 

Another unique aspect of the AHA’s research is that they offer opportunities for peer review. So qualified scientists and doctors can apply to review specific information or research in order to make sure it’s accurate, or to add their own findings, making the AHA a collaborative system of the brightest minds in the world. 

What Causes Heart Disease?

There are many factors that can contribute to heart disease. Some of the most common risk factors, though, include obesity and high blood pressure. 

Most people don’t realize that heart disease is often preventable, based on lifestyle choices and your overall health. But, about 93 million Americans are considered obese, which puts undue strain on your heart and health. Obesity can actually change the structure of your heart. The more weight you’re carrying around, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood throughout the body. That puts extra strain on it, which can cause eventually lead to heart failure. 

High blood pressure can also be caused by a variety of things. Sometimes, it’s linked to stress. Other times, it could be genetic. Whatever the cause, though, it can be a silent killer. About 17% of adults in the U.S. don’t know that they have high blood pressure. That’s likely because it usually doesn’t have any symptoms. But if it goes untreated it can damage your arteries. That leads to less blood flow and oxygen to your heart, often resulting in heart disease. 

Other risk factors for cardiovascular disease include: 

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor nutrition choices
  • Family history

As you can see by changing things like your diet, getting more exercise, and tossing away bad health habits, you can actually strengthen your heart and fight against the disease. 

There are some heart conditions that aren’t always preventable, especially for children born with a congenital heart defect. It’s actually the most common birth defect in the U.S., with nearly 40,000 babies born with a CHD each year. It can be a harrowing experience for parents who have to watch their newborn deal with such a serious medical issue right away. Many times, treatment can be done through catheterization, which eliminates the need to do open-heart surgery. Because CHD is so prominent, it actually has it’s own week during National Heart Month to raise awareness and funding for more research. 

What Can Be Done to Ensure a Heart-Healthy Future? 

In addition to all of the research being done for heart health, it’s up to individuals to make healthy choices and the right lifestyle changes. It starts with raising healthy children. Childhood obesity has been on the rise for years, and about 13.7 million children in the U.S. are considered to be overweight or obese. Programs like Jump Rope for Heart have been implemented in schools to teach kids the importance of heart health and to encourage them to be more active. But it’s just as important to teach them healthy habits at home. 

Although men are twice as likely as women to have a heart attack, it’s still important for both genders to take better care of themselves. By developing healthy habits, you can create a more positive future for your children and reduce your own risk of heart disease quickly. Remember, your heart is a muscle. By “working it” the way you would with any other muscle, it will get stronger. So stay active, eat right, and your heart can become strong enough to fight back against disease. 

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