KAUFFMAN: In Pursuit of a Younger Heart

February is the month of hearts: red paper valentines, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, and those pastel candy sweethearts with tiny messages. We should also remember the most precious heart of all: our own.

February is American Heart Month, a time to check on the health of this mighty muscle. Although we may feel young at heart, recent statistics show that American adults have hearts that are, on average, seven years older than their actual age.

How can a heart be older than the body it lives in? Risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and tobacco use can put extra stress on our hearts and blood vessels, aging them beyond their years.

Our risk of having a heart attack or stroke rises as our heart age surpasses our calendar age. Conversely, if our heart is younger than our birthday shows, then we lessen our chances of cardiovascular complications.

Our goal should be to have a heart that is younger than, or at least matches up with, our age. The good news is that starting today, we can choose to turn back the clock by making some simple lifestyle changes.

First, we need to calculate our heart age. An easy online tool is the “Heart Age Predictor” on www.cdc.gov. You will need your systolic blood pressure (the top number) and your Body Mass Index (BMI), or simply enter your height and weight into the provided BMI calculator.

Please do not panic if your heart is older than you thought. You are not alone: one in every two men and two in every five women have a heart age that is five or more years older than their actual age.

Why should we take this seriously? Because about 80 percent of heart attacks and strokes are related to preventable risk factors that prematurely age our hearts. These factors are physical inactivity, obesity, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, unhealthy diet, uncontrolled diabetes, and/or uncontrolled stress and anger.

To heal your heart and “turn back time,” pick one or two of these factors that you are ready to change. Ask your healthcare provider for help in making a plan. Small lifestyle changes can make a very big difference over time.

Try these Valentine-themed strategies for a healthier cardiovascular system:

Go to the dance! In other words, find a fun way to get moving every day.

Enjoy a nice dinner. Eat healthy meals low in saturated fat and high in colorful nutrients.

Smell the roses. Stop smoking – it more than doubles your chance of a heart attack.

Get in the mood. Reduce stress by taking a break. Find a hobby that relaxes you. Try massage, yoga, or tai chi.

Each time you see a red heart this month, think about the priceless value of your own heart. In the impish spirit of Cupid, let’s “rob the cradle” and pursue a younger and stronger version of ourselves!

Chrissie Kaufmann is a group fitness instructor at the YMCA of Southwest Michigan.

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