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Heartfelt tips for American Heart Month

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

February is American Heart Month, a time when people can focus on their cardiovascular health. While taking care of your heart medically is important, there are also emotional and spiritual dimensions to having a healthy heart.

“When we think about the heart, we think about the physical aspects,” said Nichelle Lynn-Hennigan, a psychotherapist with T.J. Walsh Counseling in Center City. “Research has shown that what happens to us emotionally can have an impact on our physical health, as well.”

If an older adult’s partner passes away and that person also dies within a year, people may say they died of a broken heart, which can actually happen, said Lynn-Hennigan.

People can take care of their mental health by staying connected socially to their partners, friends and family — with appropriate boundaries as necessary.

“What I hear a lot from older adults is that they feel disconnected from their family or others,” Lynn-Hennigan said. “They feel alone. They feel abandoned. Or they have poor boundaries. They’re doing a lot for children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and others. By doing so, older adults may be overextending themselves.”

Older adults should stay connected with those they feel supported by and listened to. They should also be careful about doing too much and overextending themselves.

The Rev. Richard Fernandez, 88, of Roxborough, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a member of Tabernacle United Church. While people use many different religions and paths to find God, “there’s a lot of research that says that religious or spiritual people use their skills to cope with life and experience in a very positive way,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be religious to cope well with life.”

To nourish the soul, Fernandez also recommended expressing gratitude. For a week or a month, write down each day things for which you are grateful. “The act of being grateful out loud or on paper is very contagious and very uplifting,” he said.

To remain young at heart, stay engaged with people of all ages, Fernandez recommended. He also urged avoiding cynicism at all costs. Each day “add some value to the world we live in,” Fernandez said. “You don’t have to turn upside down each day to add value. It’s the little things that make the world go round that make our lives richer.”

Lifestyle changes
“As a person gets older the nature of their cardiovascular system changes,” said Dr. Douglas Jacoby, chair of clinical cardiology at Pennsylvania Hospital and professor of clinical medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine.

As people age, they can build up plaque and calcification in their arteries, which become harder and lose their elasticity. This changes the way the cardiovascular system functions. As people get older, their blood pressure can rise or decline because the blood vessels are less elastic and stiffer

“Blood pressure is a reflection of aging, genetics, lifestyle and also everything around us, including environment and stress,” Dr. Jacoby said. “High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and strokes.”

Jacoby recommends a heart-healthy lifestyle to control blood pressure and otherwise keep, as the name suggests, the heart healthy. The main components are exercise and diet.

People should do a cardio activity for a half-hour a least five times a week, Jacoby said, adding, “I never want someone to exercise hard enough to hurt themselves.”

Ideally, everybody should have a vegetable-based diet, Dr. Jacoby recommended. Keeping fried foods to a minimum, controlling salt and avoiding too many carbohydrates are smart dietary choices people can make to stay healthy.

“Lifestyle change is hard. I’m not going to say it’s easy,” Dr. Jacoby said. “But when people do it, it works. For many people, the lifestyle changes are not sufficient to avoid medicine completely but they help reduce the amount of medicine a person needs.”

Even with a healthy lifestyle, genetics can impact heart health. “For many people, a heart-healthy lifestyle isn’t sufficient,” Dr. Jacoby said. “It is very common for someone to need medicine to reduce cardiovascular risk, despite exercising and eating healthy.”

That’s why it’s best to take care of your emotional and physical health daily and have your heart health monitored regularly by a health care professional.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a toolkit with resources to help people take control of their high blood pressure. It’s available for free download at

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Health Milestones eNews


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