The human heart is an amazing organ. It beats more than 100,000 times every day, pumping blood – at a rate of a gallon-and-a-half per minute – to every single cell in our body, with the exception of our corneas. The heart is a well-calibrated piece of machinery: with every beat, the right side of our heart is pumping blood into the lungs while the left side pumps the oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Virtually everything our bodies do is made possible by the heart doing its job, beat after beat, day after day, year after year.
Needless to say, our hearts are very important and it is vital that we take good care of them. When something goes wrong with the heart, it can have a serious impact on our overall health. Unfortunately, that is exactly the case for many Americans. Heart disease is the leading cause of disability in the United States and remains the number one cause of death for both men and women and for African Americans, Hispanics and Anglos. More than one in four deaths each year is attributable to cardiovascular disease – about 600,000 in total.
“High cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and diabetes are three of the leading contributors to heart disease,” says Dr. Mark Bernhard, a primary care physician. “When people are able to avoid these chronic health conditions, it’s a huge gift to their heart. And for patients who do have one or more of these conditions, there are numerous things you can do to mitigate them, reduce risk and improve your overall health.”
Indeed, many instances of heart disease and cardiovascular problems can be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices. The science behind good heart health has been established for a while and can be boiled down to these keys:
- Eat a healthy diet heavy on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eat lean meat and fish in moderation and avoid foods heavy in saturated fat, sugar and salt. Avoid trans fats altogether.
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. That means one drink per day for women; two maximum for men. Excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to weight gain, hypertension and elevated triglycerides, a type of bad cholesterol.
- Get plenty of cardiovascular exercise (“cardio.”) It doesn’t have to be elaborate – going for a brisk walk will do the job! Adults should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, at least five days a week.
- Do not smoke or vape. Heart disease is one of the many ways smoking can kill you.
(NOTE: For additional information on types of heart disease, chronic heart-related conditions and keys to a heart-healthy lifestyle, please see our 2019 American Heart Month article.)
Research and discovery has helped scientists and doctors better understand ways in which we can protect our hearts and live longer and healthier lives. And, in the last few years, a host of new technology tools are available to help us better keep track of our heart’s health.
For this American Heart Month, Privia Medical Group North Texas (PMGNTX) physicians want to share with you some new ways technology can help us keep our hearts healthy. “Technology offers us new opportunities to keep track of our physical activity and what we’re eating, as well as various important health metrics,” says Dr. Jason Ledbetter, an internal medicine physician. “Of course, no device or app can be a substitute for the good lifestyle choices of healthy eating and adequate exercise. If used properly, however, they can help facilitate them.”
(Disclaimer: PMGNTX does not endorse any specific products or software applications. This article is intended to provide general information on some of the health-related technology tools available. PMGNTX encourages you to talk with your health care provider about technology solutions that may be appropriate for you.)
Our Phones and Our Health
If you own a smartphone, you already have the most important piece of health-related technology. Our phones can double as a fitness tracker, logging the number of steps we take in a day and even how many flights of stairs we’ve climbed. If you carry your phone in your pocket all day, that’s a useful way to track your steps – and you don’t have to purchase or download anything else.
Another big reason the smartphone is so important when discussing health-related technology is the health platform that comes built into it: If you have an iPhone, it’s called Apple Health and if you have an Android-based phone, it’s called Google Fit.
Both Apple Health and Google Fit are apps that are pre-installed on the phone. They allow you to input health data – for example, your height and weight – into the app. Alternately, the health app can automatically import data from other apps on your phone, provided you have given those secondary apps your permission to share information with Apple Health/Google Fit.
Here’s an example of how this works: you take classes at a gym that has you wear a heart rate monitor. The monitor tracks how many calories you’re burning at each workout. The monitor sends the data to the gym’s app, which you have installed on your smart phone. Your Apple or Android health app can then pull that data over, so you have it all in one place.
As you will see from the list below, these apps can pull health and fitness data from a variety of other apps and devices, helping create a fairly comprehensive snapshot of our health and activity – if you want them to do so.
Smart Watches and Activity Trackers
Smart watches and activity trackers have become all the rage over the last few years. These smart devices can do a lot – they keep track of the steps you’ve walked, how fast you have run, how many flights of stairs you climbed, your heart rate and how much sleep you’re getting.
All of these functions are great for people who are trying to stay healthy by helping them know they are getting in the requisite amount of exercise. Activity trackers can also be especially valuable for patients with a cardiovascular condition.
“For patients with high blood pressure or diabetes, one of the most important things they can do for their health is to get an adequate amount of physical activity each day,” says Dr. John Thurmond, an internal medicine physician. “A smart watch or activity tracker that tells you how many steps you have taken can be a powerful tool to ensure you are getting in enough exercise each day.”
Other Devices & Apps
The health-related technology available today goes well beyond simply tracking steps or even measuring your heart rate. There are devices and corresponding apps that not only track important health data for your reference but will also send it to your physician to review.
Here are a few examples:
- Blood pressure: With a smart blood pressure cuff that links to your phone, you can take your blood pressure, have it automatically logged in your app and sent on to your doctor.
- Heart rhythm: An electrocardiogram (EKG) no longer has to mean a test in your doctor’s office with electrodes taped to your chest. With a personal EKG device, you can measure your heart’s rhythm by placing your fingers on a small device not much larger than a credit card. The personal EKG send the results to an app in your phone and on to your doctor, as well. Patients who have heart arrythmia may find a personal EKG to be a helpful tool.
- Blood glucose: For people who have diabetes or prediabetes, monitoring blood sugar is essential. A Bluetooth-enabled blood glucose monitor will send your results to the app, allowing you to log and track your blood sugar over time. It also makes it easy to compare readings after meals, when fasting, etc.
- Sleep: Getting a good night’s sleep is an important component of overall heart health. Smart watches and activity trackers can track the amount of sleep you are getting. There are also separate sleep monitors you can wear and link to your phone to later find out how long you actually slept, what your heart rate was while sleeping and if you were snoring.
- Weight/body fat/muscle mass: Maintaining a healthy body weight is an important aspect of overall health and good heart health. For patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, or a serious disease such as congestive heart failure, staying within the weight range recommended by your physician is imperative. A smart scale is a useful tool to help you monitor your weight because it automatically logs your weight into an app, allowing you to track your weight gain or loss over time. These scales typically will also provide percentages for body fat, water content and muscle composition, though these figures may not be completely precise. These scales usually also have data storage for multiple people, making it something the entire family can take advantage of.
- Nutrition & Diet: How many calories are there in a medium-sized Fuji apple, anyway? According to one of the leading nutrition apps: 121. There are dozens of apps available like this to help you eat better. You can use them to track your meals, help count the number of calories you’ve consumed, get meal suggestions and create your own meals. Most of these basic apps are free, with more advanced versions available for a price. The top nutrition apps have vast databases of food items that allow you to easily log what you ate and automatically generate calorie counts and measurements of fat, carbohydrates, sodium, sugar and vitamin and minerals. You can even use your phone’s camera to scan the barcode on the food item, sparing you the hassle of having to type it in. These apps are a good tool to keep track of what you eat and can help you identify possible culprits if you find your weight creeping up. For patients with a health condition such as hypertension, high cholesterol or diabetes, food-tracking apps can be extremely beneficial tools by helping you track and manage your sodium, sugar and fat intake.
- Fitness: As noted above, your phone can track the steps you have taken and distance you have walked, run or climbed during a day. You can download additional apps that will track your running speed, the route you took and keep tabs on your results, letting you know when you’ve set a new personal record for speed, distance or other metrics.
Using Tech to Be Healthier
Needless to say, there are no shortage of technological solutions to log your steps, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep and more. That’s great – but the point is not simply to log it in your phone; it’s to use the data to help you be healthier.
“Data is only useful if we learn from it and use it to make positive changes,” says Dr. Ledbetter. “The real power in health devices and the apps that go with them is that they provide a window into patterns about our health. If you’re monitoring your blood pressure regularly and find that it is consistently elevated at the end of your workday, that could be a sign it’s time to figure out how to reduce your stress on the job. If your weight is creeping up, let’s look at the activity side of the ledger – has your physical activity fallen off lately? Maybe there is a correlation.”
“Most of all, remember that all of this amazing technology that we have access to is no substitute for the age-old, tried and true health advice we should all follow: eat right, get enough exercise, don’t smoke and keep a lid on your stress,” adds Dr. Lynne Tilkin, a primary care physician. “See your doctor once a year for a check-up and get your recommended health screenings on time.”
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