The Kinder, Gentler Side of Heart Health

Cacao—the dried seeds at the heart of chocolate—is considered a superfood because of the wide range of health benefits it delivers.

No part of our body talks to us in quite the same way as our heart does. While we may not always be listening, our hearts communicate with us regularly, methodically, and (one should dearly hope) constantly. It only makes sense, therefore, that we’d want to keep the conversation going.

February is American Heart Month and perennially that time of year when we are urged to be more disciplined, change our habits, and start treating our hearts with respect. These warnings are spot on, of course; the evidence is overwhelming that the risk of heart disease can be drastically reduced by developing and maintaining four fundamental health habits:

1. Don’t smoke
2. Maintain a healthy weight
3. Exercise regularly and vigorously
4. Eat vegetables

“It’s not complicated,” said Kelly Greulich, Group Exercise Coordinator and Personal Trainer with the Mayerson JCC’s “Fit for Life” exercise program. “Start a regimen that embraces those four elements and stick to it. If you do, you’ll be doing your heart a tremendous favor.” According to the Mayo Clinic, if you can maintain these habits for four years, you’ll lower your risk for heart attack and stroke by 40 percent. If you can stick with the regimen for twenty years, it lowers your risk by about 87 percent.

Those are the cold, hard facts and there is no way of getting around them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t warmer, softer approaches to loving your heart. Given the intense challenges meted out over the past year by the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed an appropriate time to share what we at AgeWell Cincinnati likes to call the kinder, gentler side of heart health.

Eat Chocolate
The health benefits of chocolate—specifically dark chocolate—are numerous, and the list only seems to be growing. Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, has been shown to lower the risk factors associated with heart disease, with some studies suggesting a risk reduction of 37 percent. The source of cocoa is the cacao plant, and the beans of these plants are so abundant in important minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc, that cacao has been called the ultimate superfood. Cacao beans are also packed with flavanols, which are thought to be potent antioxidants. Because dark chocolate has more cocoa (and less sugar) than milk chocolate, it’s the chocolate recommended by dietitians. Look for cocoa percentages of 70 or higher. As for the recommended “dose” of dark chocolate, calories are a countervailing consideration, so two ounces per day is about right for most people.


Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, has been shown to lower the risk factors associated with heart disease, with some studies suggesting a risk reduction of 37 percent.


Sleep More. Live Longer. Prosper.
If you love your heart, get ready to slap that snooze bar because sleep and heart health are closely linked. Regardless of your age or health routines, being sleep deprived can put you at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Dr. Susheel Patil, the Clinical Director of Johns Hopkins Sleep Medicine, explains it this way, “Heart health can influence sleep, and sleep can influence heart problems. There’s quite a lot of overlap.” In fact one study, which followed adults over the age of 45, concluded that people who slept fewer than six hours a night were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people getting normal amounts of sleep (seven to nine hours).

Eat Fat. Be Happy.
Before we begin extolling the virtues of healthy fats, here’s everything you need to know about dietary fats rolled up into three simple words: avoid trans fats. Period. Full Stop. Do Not Pass Go with any trans fats in your pockets. If a food or drink product contains “partially hydrogenated oil,” be forewarned; there are no known benefits to trans fats. Now for the fats we can celebrate: unsaturated fats. These fats are healthy because they can lower LDL cholesterol levels while boosting HDL cholesterol (mnemonic: “L” for lousy; “H” for healthy). They can also decrease your risk for coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. When it comes to food, think avocados, olive oil (and olives), fatty fish (like salmon), nuts (and nut butters), seeds, eggs, and dark chocolate.

Get Nutty
Although the heart benefits gained from eating nuts mostly derives from their heart-healthy fat content, nuts deserve a separate shout out because of the fiber, protein, and convenience they offer. If we can resist all the not-so-great ways to eat nuts (i.e. roasted in oil and/or covered in salt, sugar, or milk chocolate), they are a powerhouse of healthy goodness for your heart. Eating nuts can lower levels of inflammation linked to heart disease, reduce plaque in your arteries, and discourage the development of blood clots that can trigger heart attacks. Nuts also help bring down LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Music to Your Heart
Few of life’s experiences are more powerful and transcendent than music. “Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation,” wrote neurologist Oliver Sacks—and the science backs him up. Researchers have learned that music relaxes arteries, boosts blood vessel function, slows heart rates, lowers blood pressure, reduces pain, and increases physical stamina. Recovering heart attack victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks from fear of a recurrence. But one seven-year study found that 30 minutes of music a day significantly lowered patients’ anxiety levels, and reduced the risk of subsequent heart attacks by 23 percent. In order to achieve the benefits music can provide, personal preference is key, so consider building your own heart-healthy soundtrack today.

If you or a loved one could benefit from programs like “Fit for Life” or other services related to heart health, please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 68 services through one number: 513-766-3333.