Matters of the heart

In this month’s column, our resident cardiologist addresses a subject near and dear to his heart: preventing the number one cause of death in the United States.


graphic of heart lifting weights

February is Heart Health Month.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, your thoughts may be turning to matters of the heart. Mine are too, but as a cardiologist, in addition to chocolate hearts, I am thinking today about the other kind—the amazing organ that pumps life through our bodies.

It’s probably not a coincidence that February is Heart Health Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease (a broad term that includes cardiovascular disease and stroke) is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more lives each year than all forms of cancer . Someone  in the U.S. dies from cardiovascular disease every 40 seconds.

Several risk factors can make it more likely that any of us will develop heart disease, including:

  • Age – Although heart disease can occur at any age (even including before birth in the case of congenital heart disease), our risk for atherosclerotic heart disease (“hardening of the arteries”) is higher as we age.
  • Sex – Both men and women are at risk, but women’s risk increases as they approach menopause.
  • Family history – A family history of heart disease increases our risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Smoking – Smokers are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as nonsmokers and more likely to die as a result. As difficult as it may be, please quit smoking!
  • Cholesterol – The higher the blood cholesterol level, the higher the risk of developing heart disease, particularly if combined with other risk factors. This field has become much more sophisticated and the subtypes of cholesterol give additional helpful information.
  • High blood pressure — High blood pressure also increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, aneurysm, and kidney damage, especially when combined with other risk factors.
  • Physical inactivity – Inactivity increases our risk, especially when combined with other risk factors such as obesity or diabetes.
  • Obesity – People who are overweight are more likely to develop heart disease and stroke, even if we have no other risk factors.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse – Heavy drinking and the abuse of certain drugs have been linked to heart disease and stroke.
  • Stress – Chronic stress, depression, anger and other negative emotions have also been linked to an increased risk of some types of heart disease.

Fortunately, heart disease is also one of the most preventable causes of death, particular ischemic heart disease: the disorders related to atherosclerosis. We can’t do much to change our age or heredity, but there are plenty of ways to reduce our risk by adopting a more heart-healthy lifestyle. Smithsonian Wellness can help enormously!

Formed in 2016 by a pan-Institutional Wellness Team, Smithsonian Wellness operates under the guidance of the Wellness Steering Committee. “Our mission is to promote the health, wellbeing and quality of life of the Smithsonian community,” says steering committee member Paige Jones, of the Office of Human Resources. “We offer a range of programming focused on the mind, body and healthful habits.” This holistic approach includes:

  • Classes and programs – Classes suitable for all levels of experience, such as Weight Watchers, SHAPE walks, CPR instruction, meditation, yoga and Zumba Fitness.
  • Fitness Centers – Smithsonian Fitness Centers offer small gyms in several locations with cardio machines and weights, many open 24 hours a day. Check schedules and get an access form.
  • GetFit@SI Challenge – The first challenge was from June to December, 2016. Watch your email for an employee survey that will guide the 2017 program.
  • Health Risk Assessment − Occupational Health Services offers free and confidential biometric measures targeted at decreasing our risk of heart disease: cholesterol, resting heart rate and blood pressure as well as InBody composition measurements. Sign up today.
  • Mental Health and Stress – The Office of Human Resources offers free, confidential support for those struggling with personal and emotional concerns, family and marital problems, substance abuse and workplace relationships as well as a host of work-life issues. Contact the Office of Human Resources for more information.

We can also create our own Personal Wellness Profile, download mobile apps and subscribe to WellNotes, a monthly newsletter of tips and advice to help us maintain a healthy, mindful lifestyle.

The Smithsonian continues to thrive because it is larger than the sum of its parts — each of us contributes to the greater whole. It works that way with people, too. We are at our healthiest and happiest when we strive for wellness in body, mind and spirit. The Smithsonian community is near and dear to my own heart and I urge you to take care of yourselves.

Posted: 13 February 2017
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.