It’s time to say farewell to February. The heart-shaped Valentines have made their way into the trash, as have the one or two (or five) heart-shaped candy boxes and the leftover crusts from that heart-shaped pizza you definitely didn’t single-handedly consume in one sitting. Frankly, you’re probably ready to swap all the romantic symbols for shamrocks and Easter eggs. Before you flip the calendar, though, shift your focus away for a moment from the festive hearts that have harassed you in every Target aisle since January 1st, and instead consider the health and function of the real heart beating in your chest.
Each February, the American Heart Association (AHA) encourages every American to celebrate Heart Month by learning about their risks for cardiovascular diseases and by taking steps to reduce those risks with a commitment to healthier, heart-conscious lifestyle choices. Sure, devouring that bag of chalky conversation hearts probably didn’t do you any favors, but Heart Month isn’t over yet, and there’s no time like the present. One of the easiest ways to start that heart-healthy journey is to get screened for hypertension.
Hypertension (or high blood pressure) is a cardiovascular condition that, according to the AHA, affects nearly half the nation’s adults. If you’re feeling pretty confident that you’re part of the unaffected group because you haven’t experienced symptoms, you may not want to get too comfortable. Not only have the AHA’s revised guidelines significantly widened the “at risk” pool, but hypertension has been dubbed the “silent killer” specifically because people often don’t realize they have it. High blood pressure forces the heart and the entire circulatory system to work harder, yet less efficiently, and over time, it becomes a catalyst for a host of other severe cardiovascular issues, from pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs) and angina (chest pain), to a full-fledged stroke or heart attack.
Natalie W. Pierson, BSN, RN, FHFSA, a Heart Failure nurse coordinator for the Penn Heart and Vascular Center, often meets with patients after they have experienced these cardiovascular events and helps them reassess their lifestyle and establish a plan to integrate heart-healthy behaviors into their routines. However, after nearly 30 years of helping patient after patient manage the aftermath of cardiovascular crises, Pierson was left wondering how she could help individuals circumvent these issues in the first place – especially given hypertension’s distinction as one of the most prevalent, yet preventable risks for heart disease.
“Four years ago, Dr. Paul Mather [a professor of Clinical Medicine for the Penn Heart and Vascular Center] encouraged me to get involved with the American Heart Association’s ‘Go Red for Women’ initiative. He saw a passion for outreach in me that I hadn’t even realized I possessed yet, and that was the beginning of my community efforts,” Pierson said. “The initiative focuses on helping women understand their risk for hypertension and heart disease and the importance of knowing their numbers. In an effort to get a dialogue going, I organized ‘Style and Learn’ programs at local salons (they couldn’t get away because they were getting their hair done!) that focused on starting a conversation about heart health. That initial engagement and education is so important.”
Now pursuing an M.S. in Nursing Community Systems Administration, Pierson has shifted her focus to initiating those conversations and to promoting preventive care. She recently received funding through a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to propel her outreach and is developing comprehensive, community-focused programming that aims to educate the community about the pervasiveness of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, the risk factors, and the benefits of change. By providing information and access to resources like screenings, Pierson hopes to promote personal and community wellness and empower individuals to embrace healthier behaviors.
“My vision is to create a six-week program that covers topics like the prevalence of hypertension and the damage it can cause, how to increase physical activity even if there’s no room in your schedule or wallet for a gym membership, and how to eat more nutritious diet even if you’re on a tight budget,” Pierson said. “Reading and understanding food labels could be an entire session on its own. A field trip to the grocery store, for example, would offer practice in determining if that ‘low-fat, healthy choice’ meal is a good option, or if the high sodium content cancels it out.”
Pierson acknowledges that outreach events won’t always prevent participants from becoming patients – predisposed individuals can’t change their genetic makeup, after all – but tackling the environmental factors and lifestyle choices that quietly bump up blood pressure numbers is critical. “My goal is to highlight why these behavioral changes are so important and show how people can implement them in a sustainable way,” she said.
With the support of her Penn Medicine CAREs grant, Pierson has helped develop two outreach programs – co-sponsored by the Philadelphia American Heart Association – at two Philadelphia Housing Authority sites in West and Southwest Philadelphia. These programs target individuals who lack access (or believe they may lack access) to healthcare by bringing Penn providers to their doorstep.
“One participant commented that she had always shied away from healthcare providers due to fear,” Pierson said. “After meeting the Penn team, she felt reassured and comfortable and, for the first time in 33 years, will actively engage with a physician for continuity of care.”
Pierson has also teamed up with the non-profit Sugga Mamas Diabetes Prevention and Management to organize a call-to-action meeting to ramp up enthusiasm, and she hopes to forge key partnerships with political, religious, and cultural leaders in the local community who can support and promote her mission. The program will initially focus on underserved communities in West Philadelphia that lack easy access to healthcare and that face higher risks for hypertension. Given the sheer magnitude of the hypertensive population and the fact that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, Pierson hopes to expand her programming and to share her knowledge with as many people as possible.
Though the program is still in the planning phase, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk for hypertension and end Heart Month with a bang (or rather, with a totally average and healthy thump thump) by making the basic changes Pierson plans to cover in her educational sessions:
- Get moving: You don’t have to be in Olympic athlete shape, and “If you can’t make it to the gym every day, that’s fine. There are so many basic ways to increase your physical activity. Take a walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park your car further away from the store... You’d be surprised how easy it is to get in the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week.”
- Eat well: Paleo, Keto, Whole30, low-carb/high-protein, high-carb/low-fat... The diets trends dominating your Facebook feed right now are enough to make your head spin. The good news is you don’t need to go on a restrictive diet to lower your risk of hypertension, but “it’s important to increase the amount of heart-healthy fruits and vegetables you eat. Definitely decrease the fried food,” and considering skipping the salt shaker.
- Kick the habit(s): Quitting smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation are key to lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease. Nicotine raises your blood pressure and heart rate and increases the risk of plaque buildup in your arteries. While studies have swung back and forth debating whether red wine is a heart health elixir, drinking excessive amounts of any alcohol temporarily spikes your blood pressure.
- Know your numbers: Get regular blood pressure screenings to ensure you’re on track. After all, Pierson says, “if you don’t know that you need to make a change or understand why, you’re less likely to.” Remember that getting tested is the only surefire way to know whether or not your blood pressure is in a safe, healthy range (now defined as systolic less than 120 and diastolic less than 80) because hypertension doesn’t have associated symptoms – until you experience a hypertensive crisis (systolic higher than 180 and/or diastolic higher than 120).