I have the luxury of not having to think too much about my heart. As a young woman, my primary relationship with my heart is to quietly appreciate its behind-the-scenes work pumping blood (and life-giving oxygen) throughout my body, from right above my center of gravity to my outermost extremities. My thinking about my heart changes when I run to catch a bus, and I feel the muscle’s force exuberant in my chest; or when I have a flash of anxiety, and I’m counting the microseconds between every seeming irregular palpitation; or when my doctor tells me that, at 25 years old, my cholesterol is slightly elevated, and I might consider getting more aerobic exercise.
For younger women, the trouble with actively thinking about your heart health is that, well, we don’t think about it. Unlike immediate, acute health concerns — anxiety, eczema, to name a few — that you can notice and deal with as they come up, the most common issues with your heart arise typically after years of doing exactly what I do now; not paying attention to it. Just like saving for retirement, heart health is an issue that you might be putting off for your future self to deal with. But as our culture moves to incorporate a more holistic understanding of health and healthcare into our daily lives, it’s becoming easier to be more mindful of what your heart is actually doing every day, and how you can help support it.
Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s vice president of health, who contributes to programs like the Apple Watch, wants younger women to understand how steps they take now can impact their heart health in the future — but they can also see those effects in the moment. “The best thing young women can do is is not worry about heart health, but think about the fact that you're preparing yourself for the future," she tells Bustle. "Focus on exercise, heart health, brain health, mood health, because all of that really affects how your body reacts.”
Myriad studies have found connections between stress and heart health in people of all ages and genders. These studies often come to conclusions we know well, but may not enact in our everyday lives; developing management strategies for stress, sleeping well, eating healthfully, and exercising all point to better heart health outcomes. But unfortunately, a study published this month in the journal Circulation found that young women between the ages of 35-54 experience a third of all heart attacks, a proportion that’s increased from 10 years ago. This may be because we’re still not talking about it until it’s too late.
As much as young women can be aware of their heart health while they’re younger, Dr. Desai says, “that pays dividends off as you get older.” Things like being aware of your resting heart rate, being reminded to breathe, and having metrics of how much aerobic exercise you’re getting can inform the choices you make daily. The fact that features like this are available on fitness trackers like the Apple Watch and others is invaluable for people who might not otherwise have access to this information.
“For patients, when you put something on them that's purely a health monitor, they're less interested [in wearing it], even if I tell them it's only for a few days. That’s not what we want as physicians — we want to see when patients are having symptoms in their everyday life. With the Watch, it’s something you can wear every day and … also see if your heart rate’s elevated, if you have an irregular rhythm.” And if you’re having heart symptoms, you can take an electrocardiogram (ECG, a test that measures your heart's activity) with the Apple Watch and share that information with your doctor later, Dr. Desai says.
But what’s even more powerful is that “it’s the same device you use to talk to your loved ones, that encourages you to move, to be active, and to breathe. When you're focusing on your health [in a holistic] way, you can be proactive about your health as opposed to reactive.”
Another aspect of this conversation that can’t be ignored is how access gives people the ability to talk about their health like this. For someone who doesn’t have insurance, or who doesn’t have time between their job and caregiving responsibilities to go see the doctor, having actionable, digestible information in the palm of their hand can be the push they need to make space for their health among other responsibilities. (Of course, financial access is important too; while affordable wearables with heart-monitoring capabilities are out there, with varied effectiveness, the Apple Watch series 4 starts at $399.)
But making this information a part of everyday life goes a long way towards making this information a little less scary. Heart health becomes something you encounter not only when something’s wrong, but also when you make progress and see your heart health improve step by step, day by day.
“What I always tell my patients [is] to try to take these little micro steps every day,” Dr. Desai says. “We know that's not going to solve it over night, but it’s really beneficial.”