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Transform Your Health: Proactive Steps to Protect Your Heart and Brain

Heart attacks occur every 25 seconds, and strokes happen every 40 seconds. And if you think you’re ‘safe’ because you’re ‘young,’ these devastating events are not solely happening to frail and sick older adults in their 80s. They are happening more and more to younger, seemingly healthy individuals of any gender. 

In fact, heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is the number one killer of women, with nearly ten-fold the rate at which women die from breast cancer. February is American Heart Month, but people should pay attention to their heart health every month.

Women and Heart Health

So why is it the case that so many young people are enduring heart attacks and strokes? The current medical system is set up to help us once we are already sick, not with preventing disease in the first place. 

In addition, women are often misled about the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke. They, therefore, are more likely to experience a life-altering or sometimes fatal stroke or heart attack. By the age of 45, 1 in 9 women will have a form of heart disease, and by 65, that risk increases to 1 in 3. And according to the American Heart Association, nearly 45% of women ages 20+ are living with some form of cardiovascular disease.

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Phew – let these numbers sink in for a moment.

Here in the Inland Northwest, Spokane is home to an extraordinary clinic called The Prevention Center for Heart and Brain Health, owned and operated by world-renowned cardiovascular specialist Amy Doneen, DNP, ARNP, a Spokane local. Dr. Doneen also cofounded the BaleDoneen Method with Dr. Bradley Bale, and their book Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain: The Personalized Path to Protect Your Memory, Prevent Heart Attacks and Stroke and Avoid Chronic Disease recently received the prestigious 2023 Nautilus Book Award. 

The lifesaving BaleDoneen method used at The Prevention Center and explained in detail in the book focuses on arterial health by reducing inflammation, a precursor for heart disease, diabetes, memory loss, and Alzheimer’s disease. This clinic goes against conventional Western medicine’s approach of treating you once you’re already sick. They focus on heart attack and stroke prevention through a series of medical tests, including extensive blood lab markers, simple and low-cost imaging, genetic screening, and lifestyle assessments to ensure people are prescribed the appropriate medications and lifestyle interventions to support living a longer life full of vitality.

How to Improve Your Heart Health Year-Round

While many proactive approaches to preventative health are described in detail in Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain, we all need a place to start. Here are six things to start (and stick to) throughout the year:

  1. Know your numbers. When did you last have an annual physical that included lab work? Make this a priority in 2024, as knowledge is power in preventative health. At a bare minimum, ask for a full lipid panel, blood pressure, vitamin D, fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin, and inflammatory markers checked at your next appointment. For a complete list of recommended tests to request, check out Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain. Many helpful blood and imaging tests are modest in price, even without using insurance. 
  2. Get moving. It’s no secret that the average American is sitting too much and not moving enough. This pattern correlates directly with the skyrocketing incidence of Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and dementia, all of which are related to how much we MOVE regularly. The best form of exercise is the one that can be made into a regular habit. To reduce the likelihood of heart disease and/or developing a stroke or heart attack, aim to do at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day and strength or resistance training at least twice a week. This doesn’t need to be running on a treadmill until you’re blue in the face. Better yet, find something you enjoy that feels like less of a “chore” and commit to it. This could be dancing, group fitness classes, brisk walking, or swimming. It all counts as long as your heart rate is up and you feel challenged to converse. Diversity of exercise can also greatly support mobility and agility as we age. 
  3. Ditch the “diet” and find a sustainable way to eat. If you’re considering a trendy diet, think again. Most diets fail and cost money, leaving you feeling restricted and defeated when they prove unsustainable. Instead, work on eating less processed and pro-inflammatory foods such as excessive sugar, saturated fat, and alcohol. Also, incorporate a variety of colorful plants for natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, heart-healthy fats like salmon, avocados, and olive oil, and lean protein like fish, soy, skinless poultry, and beans/legumes, to name a few options. Nutrition recommendations can also be personalized depending on health conditions, an individual’s goals, genetics, and many other factors. If you need clarification on what to fuel your body with, speak with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who can support your unique goals. 
  4. Sleep well. Poor sleep is widely accepted as a risk factor for many chronic diseases. Do you wake feeling rested? How many hours of sleep do you get each night? Optimal sleep for heart health is 7-8 hours. Sleep can be influenced by numerous factors, including disruptions at home (kids, pets, noise, snoring partners), changing hormones (hello perimenopause!), and even more serious but common conditions like obstructive sleep apnea. If you suspect your sleep has been suffering, it may be worthwhile to get a sleep study completed at home to rule out sleep apnea since this is a treatable condition linked to increased risk for heart attacks and strokes. There are also numerous ways to assess sleep quality and incorporate non-invasive tools to support a good night’s rest. 
  5. Reduce emotional stress and build in social connections. It’s not just poor diet and lack of exercise that contribute to elevated risk for heart disease; it’s how we manage our stress. Life stressors are inevitable, and how we decide to manage the stressors is key. Now is a perfect time to sift through your stressors. Can something go? Can you work less? Do you need a break from certain stressful triggers? Do you need more fun in your day-to-day life? Take that break. Finding ways to regularly calm our nervous systems, even with simple deep breathing exercises, breaks outside in nature, or meditation, can be hugely beneficial. And now more than ever, it’s important to find healthy ways to optimize our mental health and seek out professional help as needed. Aside from stress management, people who maintain social connections are shown to live longer, healthier lives. Phone a friend, schedule a coffee date, and keep up the conversations with those loved ones in your life. If your social meter is running low, where can you plug in? Seek out a group of people with similar interests and prioritize social time for your health’s sake. 
  6. Don’t neglect your oral health. What do oral health and hygiene have to do with heart attack and stroke prevention? Quite a bit! The mouth is home to many different bacteria, some of which can cause periodontal (gum) disease, infect the brain, or inflame the arteries. Ensure you get dental cleanings and exams at least twice per year and practice regular brushing and flossing. It’s not just for a pretty smile and good breath but also for your heart and brain health. 

For more information on preventing heart disease, diabetes, and dementia, subscribe to The Prevention Center’s newsletter and find Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain locally at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, WA, and online where books are sold. 

Monika Jacobson

After growing up in the Inland Northwest, Monika Jacobson earned her Bachelor’s degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics at Washington State University. She moved to the west side and worked as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in a myriad of settings–from luxury health clubs, to coaching athletes with sports nutrition, to home health clinical nutrition and various start-ups in Seattle-focused scientific wellness and genetics. After moving to Spokane with her family, she created Eat Move Thrive-Spokane because she wanted to transform people’s lives by teaching them how to make healthy food taste good. At Eat Move Thrive-Spokane, Monika teaches adult and kid cooking classes (online and in-person) and coaches clients one-on-one with their wellness goals centered on nutrition. She discusses how stress, sleep, hormones, and overall mental health affect the decisions we make about food. 

Read all of Monika’s articles here.

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