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Akst: Celebrating the heart in February

Ah, the heart: famed in song and story, and thought for ages to be responsible for emotion as well as life.

This month, we pay special attention to the heart. Today is Valentine’s Day, February is American Heart Month, and more people tend to die of heart disease and heart attacks in the winter.

Each of the above is worthy of mention, but first, some vital stats about what one comedian (I forget who) calls “the love pump.”

A human heart beats about 100,000 times in a day and about 35 million times a year. During an average lifetime, a heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times, according to PBS. In that time, it pumps about 1 million barrels of blood.

Think about that next time you’re fixing or replacing … anything. Hardly any part or machine you can name has the endurance and low maintenance characteristics of a human heart.

But for an organ so robust, it is also vulnerable, and I’m not talking about falling for someone.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, even though it’s largely preventable and controllable. Every year, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack, according to a 2013 report from the American Heart Association.

About 600,000 people die from heart disease in the United States each year. That’s one out of every four deaths, the AHA says. Besides the human toll, cardiovascular disease (which includes heart disease and stroke), costs the United States $312 billion annually in medications, lost productivity and medical care.

Then there’s our horrific winter. One report from Harvard Medical School estimates that about 1,200 Americans die each winter from shoveling snow. In just one weekend in January, four people in the Chicago area died of snow-shoveling-induced heart attacks.

But enough of doom and gloom. Let’s focus on happier considerations.

Today we celebrate the holiday of love.

True, people do go overboard, and true, holidays are overly commercialized. Still, Valentine’s Day does present a special opportunity to show our loved ones we love them.

One piece of Valentine news should make retailers’ hearts go pitter patter. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans plan to spend about $131 on candy, cards, gifts and other Valentine stuff this year. That’s up from $126 last year. Total spending will reach $18.6 billion.

Here are three suggestions for a Happy Valentine’s Day that also makes the heart happy.

Sex. According to, sex is good for your heart. “Besides being a great way to raise your heart rate, sex helps keep your estrogen and testosterone levels in balance,” the health website said. One study indicates that men who had sex at least twice a week were half as likely to die of heart disease as men who had sex rarely.

Dark chocolate. In a 9-year Swedish study of more than 31,000 women, those who ate one or two servings of dark chocolate each week cut their risk for heart failure by as much as a third, reports Women’s Health magazine. Another long-term study in Germany found that about a square of dark chocolate a day lowered blood pressure and reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39 percent.

“Most of the credit goes to flavonoids, antioxidant compounds that increase the flexibility of veins and arteries,” the magazine said.

Red wine. The Mayo Clinic states red wine – in moderation – has long been considered heart healthy. “The alcohol and certain substances in red wine called antioxidants may help prevent heart disease by increasing levels of ‘good’ cholesterol and protecting against artery damage,” it said.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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