By Dr. Maurice Geurts, Grace Cottage Family Health
as originally appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer’s Graceful Health series, February 24, 2017
February is the month of Valentine’s Day, when we focus on emotions of the heart. February is also American Heart Month, a time when we are encouraged to consider the mechanics of this important organ.
Fortunately, most of the time, our hearts do their work silently and reliably, without any effort on our part. We shouldn’t take them for granted, though. Our hearts do need our attention, as certain lifestyle behaviors do often lead to malfunction.
The most common disease of the heart is the one over which we have the most control.
Approximately one in three American adults has hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. Another one-third of Americans have pre-hypertension, blood pressure that is higher than normal, but not yet in the danger zone.
Quite often, people have hypertension and don’t know it. That’s why it is often called the “silent killer,” because many times there are no obvious signs, except for the numbers detected by a blood pressure cuff. That’s why we check your blood pressure every time you visit the doctor. High blood pressure is a major concern for health care providers because it can lead to heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of death in the U.S.
We doctors see far too many cases of hypertension. We might even say it’s an epidemic. This is sad because blood pressure is so easily controlled for most people, if they make good choices about diet and exercise.
High blood pressure literally refers to the pressure that blood exerts on the walls of arteries and the chambers of the heart as it pumps throughout the body. Blood pressure naturally varies throughout the day, and the circulatory system is designed to withstand this fluctuation, but it can only stand so much pressure. With hypertension, the rate of pressure is consistently too high, and damage results.
The most common advice I give to patients with hypertension is the following: stop smoking, lose weight, cut back on sodium, drink less alcohol, and get more exercise. All of these are lifestyle choices, within the patient’s control. I can prescribe medication to help the situation, but ultimately, it’s a matter of healthy behavior. Yes, it is challenging to change habits, but there is no amount of medication that can cure hypertension when bad habits persist.
Fortunately, those who are working to take better care of their hearts have plenty of support. Grace Cottage offers weight loss reduction support groups, stop smoking classes, free nutrition and exercise counseling, and low-cost exercise classes, among other things.
Exercise for a healthy heart does not need to be fancy or difficult. Every minute that you spend walking is a gift you give to your heart.
These days, we hear so much about the cost of healthcare, and rightly so, as costs continue to rise. The biggest impact we can have on this is to take good care of ourselves. The best health insurance is a healthy lifestyle.
Valentine’s Day comes only once every year, but every day is the right time to focus on your heart.
Bio: Dr. Geurts is a graduate of the University of Amsterdam Medical School. He completed his residency at the University of Vermont and joined the Grace Cottage staff in 2003.