February is a month filled with flowers, chocolate, and all things love related. It’s also American Heart Month—a time to focus on making healthy choices so we can live life to the fullest.
With that in mind, we spoke with Gerald Fletcher, M.D., professor of medicine – cardiology at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, for tips on how seniors can keep their hearts in shape, reduce their risk of heart disease, and enjoy a long and healthy life.
Take a walk.
Physical activity is essential to a healthy heart, and it doesn’t even require a gym membership. Simple steps like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking a short distance instead of driving, can make a big difference, says Dr. Fletcher.
In fact, a recent study revealed that just 15 minutes of physical activity a day—such as a brisk walk—can help you live longer.
“If you have a physically active lifestyle, that will help control other risk factors,” asserts Dr. Fletcher.
Stick with water.
You may think you’re making a healthy choice by drinking diet or even sugar-free soda, but these beverages contain less-than-healthy ingredients, says Dr. Fletcher. Even seltzer is no substitute for the best drink on earth—good old H2O.
Here’s a good measurement to keep in mind: Men need about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids per day, and women need about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters). About 20 percent of your daily fluid intake will come from food, and the rest from drinks. So men should be drinking about 12.4 cups (2.96 liters) of liquid—preferably water—and women should be drinking about 9.2 cups (2.16 liters) per day.
Choose simple foods.
To boost your heart health, Dr. Fletcher advises you avoid foods with extra sweeteners, such as those found in processed and packaged foods, and opt for simple foods like fish and fowl. Also, be sure to choose colorful fruits and veggies, fiber-rich whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats. These nutrient-dense foods can help keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check, and contribute to an overall heart-healthy diet.
After all, says Dr. Fletcher, “you are what you eat and you are what you drink.”
Consider daily aspirin therapy.
Many older adults take a baby aspirin every day for heart attack prevention—a move Dr. Fletcher supports, noting that there is good data on aspirin’s effectiveness. Aspirin helps prevent blood clots from forming, and helps prevent heart attack and stroke. He recommends taking a low dose of aspirin at night before bed, as blood pressure tends to spike between 1 and 2 a.m.
Of course, you should always check with your doctor before starting any course of therapy, even over-the-counter medication.
Mind your blood pressure.
“People are often prone to high blood pressure because of family history, but blood pressure can be influenced by daily habits,” explains Dr. Fletcher.
In other words, don’t accept high blood pressure as your new normal. Normal blood pressure is 120/80, and anything above that—even by a little—is not OK, he says.
Because sodium can increase blood pressure, it’s important to control your intake of the salty stuff. The American Heart Association recommends you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults.
Manage your stress.
For most of us, stress is a simple—and unwelcome—fact of life. And excessive stress can contribute to high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
“There’s no cure for stress,” notes Dr. Fletcher. “You can’t take a pill to control it.”
The best thing to do, he says, is be aware of the reality of stress and combat it with physical activity, a proper diet, and periods of rest. While we may not be able to eliminate stress from our lives completely, we can certainly minimize and manage it. Find what works for you—whether it’s reading, praying, talking with a friend, or another healthy outlet.
Many of us have idealized the notion of putting our feet up and doing little else when we get older, but Dr. Fletcher believes it’s a mistake to become sedentary in retirement. Even part-time work or volunteering can keep the brain and body active, and contribute to heart health and overall well-being.
“Staying productive is a very helpful and healthy attitude to have,” he affirms. “It helps makes life worthwhile.”
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