Your to-do list for today probably doesn't have "Get heart healthy" at the top of it. Heart problems are one of those things that many of us think happens only to other people. We associate strokes and heart attacks with older people, or at least people who are incredibly unhealthy. If you don't smoke or you're within a healthy weight range, you may think that you don't have anything to worry about. And there's probably plenty of time to quit those bad habits, right? Not necessarily.
An increasing number of people in their 30s have conditions that can lead to heart disease, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States -- for both men and women. Toss the idea that heart disease is a man's disease out the window -- about half of all heart disease deaths in 2006 were women. The good news is that you can do something about it. Read on to learn about 10 ways that you can get (and stay) heart-healthy.
There's a reason why it's called an addiction; it's very difficult to quit smoking once you've picked up the habit. But no matter how long you've been a smoker, it's never too late to stop.
You already know that smoking can give you lung cancer (throat cancer, mouth cancer, pancreatic cancer -- you get the picture), but did you know that it can increase your risk of heart disease?
Smokers have a higher incidence of atherosclerosis (buildup of fat in the arteries), and they generally have lower HDL (the good kind of cholesterol). Smoking can increase your blood pressure and your risk of blood clots. And, if you're a heavy smoker, you've probably noticed that you get very out of breath if you try to do sustained aerobic activity -- something that's necessary for good heart health.
Even if you're not a smoker, secondhand smoke can also increase your risk of heart disease, so it's best to stay out of smoky places.
Limit Alcohol and Caffeine
There have been lots of studies about the heart-healthy benefits of drinking alcohol in moderation, particularly red wine. While there has been some research to suggest that a drink or two per day can help raise HDL (good cholesterol), the jury's still out. If you don't drink, there's no reason to start because of these potential benefits. There are enough other risks associated with drinking to make sure you keep it in moderation. Excessive alcohol consumption can actually raise your triglycerides (fat levels in the blood), as well as lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure and obesity.
Scientists are unsure whether drinking lots of caffeine will increase your risk of heart disease -- results of studies so far are mixed. It seems to depend on how each person individually metabolizes caffeine. But if you find yourself feeling dizzy or having heart palpitations after drinking more than a few cups of coffee a day, consider cutting back.
Take Care of Your Teeth
It seems odd at first to think that your teeth have anything to do with heart health, but there may be a link between heart disease and periodontal disease, which affects both your gums and your bones supporting the teeth. According to the American Academy of Peridontology, people with periodontal disease are nearly two times as likely to have heart disease, although we're not sure why just yet. One theory suggests that bacteria in your gums can enter the bloodstream and attach itself to fat already in your arteries, while another states that the inflammation caused by periodontal disease makes the arteries swell.
While nobody can definitively say that you will prevent heart disease by taking care of your teeth, early signs of periodontal disease -- including bleeding gums -- are much easier to notice than signs of heart disease. Brushing and flossing your teeth regularly, as well as visiting your dentist at least twice a year, will definitely contribute to your overall health.
While we can't yet prove that stressful situations can increase your risk of having heart disease, there does seem to be a connection between the two. A study conducted at Yale University in 2006, for example, showed that layoffs doubled the risk of heart attacks in some age groups, and other studies have shown similar findings. Stress can also lead you to engage in behaviors that aren't exactly heart-healthy, such as smoking, excessive drinking and overeating. That's why it's in your best interest to find other ways to cut back on your stress levels.
Here are a few healthy ways to reduce stress:
- Try to keep in mind that you can't control what others do -- all you can do is control your reaction to it.
- Avoid stressful situations as much as possible.
- Find some kind of enjoyable exercise.
- Talk to others about your feelings and get a different perspective.
- Make a little quiet time each day to meditate, journal or reflect.
Stay Within a Healthy Weight Range
Being overweight can be very hard on your heart. A bigger body needs an increased blood flow, so your heart enlarges in order to compensate. This can lead to high blood pressure -- a major cause of heart disease -- or congestive heart failure (when the heart's chambers give out due to overexertion). A study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute showed that the risk of heart failure increases by 34 percent if you're overweight and more than 100 percent if you're obese.
Losing just 5 or 10 pounds can help. Use an online calculator to learn your Body Mass Index, or BMI. You should also get out a tape measure. For men, your risk of heart disease is increased if your waist measures more than 40 inches, while the risk for women increases at more than 35 inches. If you're overweight or obese according to your BMI, or have a larger waist measurement, talk to your doctor about losing weight.
There are lots of great reasons to exercise, and staying heart healthy is just one of them. Regular aerobic exercise can lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) and blood pressure as well as your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other conditions. It also reduces your stress level. Your heart is a muscle that needs to be exercised just like any other -- doing so will make it work more efficiently even when you're at rest.
The American Heart Association suggests that you get 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. If you've never exercised before, start out slowly and build up. You can also break up that 30 minutes into two or three sessions. Jogging, hiking, brisk walking, swimming and bicycling are all good places to start, but finding something that you like doing (and will stick with) is the most important part.
You don't have to invest a lot of time or money into figuring out a heart-healthy diet, or even follow a diet with a specific name. Just stick to a few basic guidelines:
- Read nutrition labels and be aware of serving sizes.
- Keep your salt intake at less than 2,000 milligrams per day.
- Avoid foods high in saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol.
- Use mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, but be careful about limiting all fat intake.
- Choose whole-grain foods such as whole-wheat pasta instead of white pasta.
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables without added salt, sugar or fat.
- Choose low-fat sources of protein, such as skim milk instead of whole milk, and trim visible fat and skin from meats.
- Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts and flaxseed.
Visit Your Doctor
While some people with heart disease experience chest pain, nausea, dizziness, heart palpitations or shortness of breath, most people don't know that they have heart disease until they have a heart attack. That's why it's very important to get regular exams at your doctor's office, including checks of your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. High readings for any of these tests indicate an increased risk of heart disease. So does a high BMI or a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
If you or your doctor is concerned that you may already have heart disease, you might need more tests. One common test is an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to record your heart's electrical activity to find out whether you have a normal heartbeat or any heart damage. You may have it lying down, or when walking or running on a treadmill (known as a stress test).
Make Sleep a Priority
It's no secret that most of us don't get enough sleep. It can negatively affect our health in a lot of ways, but a study last year made more of a link between a lack of sleep and heart disease. In 2008, University of Chicago researchers showed that not getting enough sleep may lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Twenty-seven percent of the study participants getting less than five hours of sleep per night had plaque in their heart vessels, which only 11 percent of people sleeping five to seven hours and six percent sleeping more than seven hours did.
One theory is that a lack of sleep raises levels of a hormone called cortisol, which leads to inflammation and causes plaques to break apart, travel to the heart or brain and cause a stroke or heart attack. So grab a pillow and make sleep a priority.
Know Your Family History
So far we've looked at things that you can do individually to stay heart-healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease. But it's not just about you; your genes also play a part in whether you're more likely to develop heart disease. Essentially, if a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) had heart disease at an early age, your risk may be increased tenfold.
You can't do anything about your genes, of course, but knowing your family history is still important. For example, if you tell your doctor that you have relatives who had heart disease, he or she may be more likely to prescribe medication to help deal with conditions such as high cholesterol rather than suggest that you try managing it with exercise.
A family history of heart disease is just another reason to follow the tips we've suggested here. Not only can staying heart healthy increase your quality of life, you can also increase your lifespan and improve every aspect of your health.
How are skipping breakfast and atherosclerosis related? Learn about the results of a new study in this HowStuffWorks article.