The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, which is only slightly misleading due to the fact that when a person dies and the authorities have to list a cause when there is no other obvious reason, they often write down that his or her heart stopped, which contributes to the heart-disease statistics.

Our understanding of the heart and heart disease has come far the past few decades, including its risk factors. The leading risk factors for heart disease are heredity, stress, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, a diet high in sodium and saturated fat, obesity, physical inactivity, and excessive use of alcohol.

By understanding and controlling these risk factors, not only can we lessen our likelihood of heart disease, we can consciously improve our heart health.

In addition to the physical heart, we sometimes talk about the emotional heart. We talk about opening your heart, following your heart and coming from the heart. In these cases, the heart we speak of is not a physical organ, but rather a focus or a center of consciousness, a place where joy is experienced, where liberation is sensed, where intuition flows, and appreciation swells, where community is grasped and fortified, where benevolence is practiced, compassion is extended, where purpose and passion power choice and action, and where the interconnectedness of life and living things is understood and honored.

Just as is the case with the physical heart, there are risk factors that jeopardize the health of the emotional heart. Attitudes and behaviors that would interfere with the functioning of the emotional heart, similar again to the way cholesterol contributes to blockages in the physical heart. Included among the list of risk factors to the emotional heart are fear, greed, anger, selfishness, bigotry, arrogance and apathy.

We speak of the emotional heart as a focus of consciousness, but there is a physical organ, also, that controls consciousness, and that is, of course, the brain. Though it is much less common to speak of the risk factors that contribute to brain disease, it is nonetheless a topic worthy of discussion.

When we think of brain disease, we think of things like tumors, infections, hemorrhages, aneurysms, strokes and neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. Surprisingly, the main risk factors for these brain diseases are remarkably similar to the risk factors for heart disease, except for inadequate head protection, which is one of the biggest hazards when it comes to physical head trauma.

Just as we spoke of both abstract and physical heart health and the risk factors affecting each, we can do the same with brain health. We can identify more abstract risk factors, meaning attitudes and beliefs, rather than things like injuries and chemicals.

Perhaps the biggest risk factor when it comes to brain function is simply not using the brain. This would include the lazy and arrogant assumption that you already know what’s right and what’s best, so there’s no need to think about things or examine your attitudes. It includes unconscious aging and the ignorant acceptance of unwellness, the abandonment of ideals, the aversion to risk-taking — emotionally speaking, not financially. It includes pining for the past, isolating yourself from others, and spending endless hours sitting idly by watching and waiting, rather than living.

We all know about and accept that there are physical factors affecting the health of our hearts, our brains and all the rest. It is time, now, to recognize and acknowledge the more abstract causes of health and happiness, the attitudes and beliefs that impact our health, and to consciously choose life, love, health and happiness.

Ron Colone can be reached at


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