Hearts and flowers. Those are the words and images that are evoked by many Americans when referring to February. Valentine’s Day decorations and lace-backed red hearts are seen throughout stores soon after the December holidays, and many people contemplate extravagant plans for dinner and gifts on February 14th.

But what about the other kind – the actual heart? The complex, complicated muscular organ that literally pumps our life’s blood. Fortunately, February is also Heart Disease Awareness month and it gives us a chance to acknowledge the mighty human heart, as well as plan for some interventions to keep it strong and healthy.

It looks, in reality, more like a half heart cut out of folded construction paper school children do in art projects. It does the job of independently pumping blood throughout the body from prior to birth until the moment of death. Individual heart cells are capable of beating on their own but are coordinated by a complex electrical system to allow the movement of blood. First through the lungs, and then through the body to carry needed oxygen to tissues, move waste through the liver and kidneys, and move varying amounts of blood to our skeletal muscles depending on activity. 

So, if the heart is so amazingly independent, why do we need to think about it? While it is true that we don’t have to focus on forcing our hearts to beat regularly, we do need to remember that many bodily functions directly impact the capacity of this mighty organ to do its job. Increased activity forces the heart to pump faster and strengthens it as it strengthens our skeletal muscles. Conversely, negative stressors against the heart including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increasing fat mass in the body require the heart to work harder and weakens the muscle that it is, resulting in heart disease.

While hardly an overnight process, heart disease is the inevitable result of less-than-well cared for hearts. The World Health Organization has indicated that heart disease is the leading cause of death globally with an estimated almost 18 million deaths each year. In the US, the CDC indicates that one person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease with over 650,000 people each year. That’s 1 in every 4 deaths!

So, while the heart makes it easy for us to ignore its slow deterioration related to all of those stressors like blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol levels, February gives us a chance each year to remember those consequences. Let those hearts and flowers suspended in the store remind you to care for your actual heart by following these tips:

  • Watch your diet – Studies have shown that plant based, Mediterranean type diets decrease cholesterol levels which can lead to improved heart function. Eat more beans, eat fatty fishes and plant-based fats like avocadoes vs fatty meats, and enjoy everything in moderation!
  • Exercise – regular aerobic activity, whether it is walking, jogging, playing tennis, swimming, dancing, or any of hundreds of options for increasing your movement not only improves heart function but has been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety. ANY movement is better than no movement, so start small and increase your activity a bit each day with the goal of getting to those 10,000 steps in or getting up to 30 minutes total per day. Once started, it’s easy to see the overall benefits to stronger muscles, including increased flexibility/mobility and even decreased aches and pains, even if you can’t see the benefits to the heart.
  • Monitor your stress and find ways that help YOU de-stress. While the impact of mental stressors on heart function continues to be explored, information known to date makes it reasonable to add some de-stressors into your regular routine. Maybe it is the morning walk to clear your head, or maybe it’s learning to meditate or taking up Tai Chi. It can also look like keeping a gratitude journal or taking time to enjoy the view from your window. Whatever helps YOU to feel better and more grounded, relaxed, and calm will absolutely help your heart muscle! Do something every day to help yourself de-stress.

Take the time this month to consciously think about the wonderful muscle that is your heart and make the effort to make some changes in your life to help improve its long-term functioning.

For more information, Sun Life has upskilled its claims team to learn more about cardiovascular diseases and medical advancements. Learn about clinical claims innovations at Sunlife.com/claimslab.

Happy Heart Month!

This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical or legal advice, or a substitute for that advice.

Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, Wellesley Hills, MA. For New York group policies: Sun Life and Health Insurance Company (U.S.), Lansing, MI

GGWC-10871  SLPC 31382 2/22 (Exp 2/24)