Heart health — risk factors and preventive steps
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The numbers are staggering. It causes one in every four American deaths — roughly 659,000 per year — and that’s just deaths. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, affects almost half of the U.S. adult population.
What is heart disease?
The term heart disease is sometimes used interchangeably with cardiovascular disease, but there’s a distinction: all heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases — disorders affecting the heart and blood vessels. But (since there are disorders that affect only the blood vessels and not necessarily the heart itself) not all cardiovascular disease is heart disease.
The most common form of heart disease is coronary heart disease, in which plaque builds up in the arteries, reducing blood flow. Coronary heart disease often leads to a heart attack.
Major risk factors of heart disease
While age, gender, and race play a small role in your propensity for heart disease and heart attack, the risk factors with the most impact are lifestyle-related:
High LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) can build up in the arteries and double your risk of heart disease.
High blood pressure
Roughly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure — a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. 70 percent of first heart attacks and 80 percent of first strokes can be linked to high blood pressure.
Obesity and overweight
Nearly three-quarters of Americans are carrying extra weight. The added weight is added risk, especially for those who carry their weight around the waist. Even with no other risk factors, people with excess body fat are more likely to develop heart disease.
Often linked to overweight and obesity, physical inactivity is another major contributor to heart disease. Physical activity doesn’t just help regulate weight — it also helps control blood cholesterol, diabetes, and blood pressure.
Smoking causes immediate and long-term rises in blood pressure, along with several other negative long-term effects. Smokers are two to four times more likely to get heart disease than those who don’t smoke, and twice as likely to have a stroke.
According to the American Heart Association, even with glucose levels under control, diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Nearly 70 percent of people with diabetes over the age of 65 die of heart disease.
5 ways to improve your heart health
All of the major risk factors for heart disease, thankfully, are largely addressable with lifestyle changes. For preventive cardiovascular health or for ideas on how to start offsetting the effects of any of the above risk factors you may already be facing, read on:
1. Exercise for a healthy heart
People who exercise more are much less likely to have a heart attack. In fact, if you have a high level of cardiorespiratory fitness, you can actually cut your risk of heart attack in half.
Part of the reason exercise works so well in staving off heart disease is that it works against several of the other leading risk factors:
- It improves your muscles’ ability to get oxygen from the blood, reducing strain on the heart
- It can help to reduce both your blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels
- It can help reduce weight and prevent weight gain
- It increases your good cholesterol levels
What kind of exercise is good for heart health?
According to the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine, your best bet for heart-healthy activity is to combine aerobic exercises like jogging, swimming, and biking, with resistance training (moderate weightlifting).
Aerobic activity specifically targets heart performance, while resistance training targets the muscles of your body. Together, these types of exercise can help support a healthier heart over time.
How much time?
So how much exercise do you really need for better heart health? Fear not — no need to live in the gym or on the trail. Even just 30 minutes five days a week is enough to lower your blood pressure significantly.
And remember, exercise should be fun! Find an activity that you enjoy, and you’ll make your heart happy in more ways than one!
2. Adopt a heart-healthy diet
The phrase “heart-healthy diet” brings oatmeal to my mind. Slimy, bland oats. The great thing about a heart-healthy diet is that, once you know what foods will work in your favor, you can eat your heart out.
The first key to eating for heart health is to limit sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat. Sodium is a huge contributor to high blood pressure. Ideally, 1,500 mg per day is enough, and more than 2,400 mg per day may be dangerous. As for fats, reducing both saturated fats and trans fats helps support healthy cholesterol levels.
Cutting out processed and prepared foods is a simple way to begin lowering sodium and fat intake. But the best way to give your diet a heart-healthy boost is by incorporating more nutrients, especially through whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts.
- Leafy greens have been shown to reduce risk of heart disease.
- Eating several servings of whole grains can lower cholesterol and reduce heart disease risk up to 22%.
- Antioxidant-rich berries can reduce cholesterol, lower inflammation, and improve blood vessel function.
- Regularly eating nuts such as walnuts has been associated with lower risk of heart disease.
- Beans have been linked to reduced blood triglycerides and bad cholesterol, as well as blood pressure and inflammation.
- Supplements for cardiovascular support, like garlic, hawthorn, and niacin can support healthy cardiovascular function as well as improve immune function and reduce inflammation.
3. Stop smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke
- Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. The best thing any smoker can do for his or her health is to find help and quit! Many health insurance companies offer smoking cessation program options for those who wish to quit. (And, if you’re local to the pharmacy, there are a number of local practices and programs available to assist you. One resource you could look into is QuitlineNC, a program with free cessation services for North Carolina residents.
Smoking doesn’t just harm smokers — secondhand smoke kills, too. Nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke regularly face a 25-30% increased risk of heart disease. Finding ways to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke will have a significant effect on your heart health
4. Limit alcohol consumption
While you may have heard that a few glasses of red wine can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease, the alcohol/heart health conversation is a bit more nuanced.
While “moderate drinking” is generally considered acceptable, even if there’s debate on benefits, a moderate amount may be less than you think: an average of one drink per day (12 oz of beer, 4 oz of wine, 1.5 oz of liquor).
Excessive drinking is pretty much anything more than the above. Heavy drinking and binge drinking are both linked to an increased risk of heart disease. People who binge drink are a whopping 72% more likely to have a heart attack than those who don’t. Excessive alcohol intake can lead to:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Heart failure or stroke
As with all pleasures, the key is moderation.
5. Get happy
There’s a proverb that says “a joyful heart is good medicine.” And science seems to show this is true. Emotions that ramp up your fight or flight response trigger increased blood pressure. Over time, this can cause damage to artery walls.
Research has even shown that basically healthy people who are often angry are nearly 20% more likely to get heart disease than those who stay calm. Conversely, the happiest people are 22% less likely to develop heart disease.
Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation — there’s no data on why happier people seem to experience a lower risk of heart disease, but there are several possibilities:
- Happier people may live healthier lifestyles
- Happiness may result in a better physiological state, lower stress, etc.
- People may be genetically predisposed to happiness and thereby genetically predisposed to fewer heart attacks
While smiling won’t automatically make your heart stronger, finding ways to let go of stress and anger and do more things that make you happy over time certainly has the potential to help you live a longer, more enjoyable life.
Hopefully, this helps give you a good idea of steps you can start taking now for reducing your heart disease risk factors and taking care of the most incredible muscle in your body — your heart.