A healthy heart is central to overall good health. Embracing a healthy lifestyle at any age can prevent heart disease and lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke. You are never too old or too young to begin taking care of your heart. True, the younger you begin making healthy choices, the longer you can reap the benefits. But swapping good habits for bad to promote good health can make a difference, even if you’ve already suffered a heart attack.
Choosing healthier foods and exercising are two of the best ways to contribute to good heart health. There are a number of additional things you can do to lower your risk for heart disease. Things that put you at higher risk for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure.
- Obesity/being overweight.
- High cholesterol levels.
- Inactivity (no exercise).
- Family history of heart disease (especially a parent or sibling).
The good news is that it is possible to decrease your risk by making changes in the way you live your life. Even if you have a family history of heart disease, the power of prevention is on your side.
Path to improved health
You are in direct control over many things that can influence your heart health. It’s up to you to choose how seriously you take this responsibility. Some people find it easy to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Others will do so only after being diagnosed with a symptom of heart disease, like high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.
Whatever your inspiration, know that the benefits of a healthy heart are worth the effort. In fact, your entire body will be better for it. Good overall health can also protect you from type 2 diabetes, asthma, joint pain, and a number of other chronic diseases and conditions. It can even reduce your risk for cancer. Additionally, a healthy lifestyle that includes eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise has been proven to boost your mood. You’ll have more energy and less stress.
If you aren’t sure where to begin, try to add just one healthy aspect to your life for now. As you feel that you are gaining control, try adding another, then another. Pretty soon, you’ll feel empowered instead of overwhelmed.
Make healthy food choices
Balance is the key to eating healthy for the long haul. Your diet should consist mainly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins. If you eat this way most of the time, you’ll be able to indulge occasionally.
Allowing yourself to eat something you crave from time to time is important. So do not feel guilty about treating yourself as a reward for eating healthy. Just make sure that you aren’t treating yourself too often.
As you choose your vegetables, keep color in mind. A colorful plate with plenty of red, orange, yellow, and dark-green vegetables helps ensure you are getting the vitamins and minerals you need.
Try to cut down on or even eliminate heavily processed foods. Heavily processed foods are the boxed and packaged foods, especially those that are ready to eat (think crackers, potato chips, and even drive-through foods). Also, look for foods low in sodium.
Swap soda and energy drinks for water. There is an incredible amount of sugar in soda and energy drinks. Drinking water in place of these can significantly impact your health for the better. Aim for drinking at least 8, 8-ounce glasses of water each day.
Watch your weight
Being obese or overweight is not healthy. The more weight you gain, the higher your body mass index (BMI). Your BMI is a measure of your body fat based on your height and weight. The higher your BMI, the higher your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar levels. Being obese also puts you at risk for breathing problems, gallbladder disease, liver disease, and even cancer.
Making healthy food choices in combination with an exercise program is the best way to lose weight. Even a small amount of weight loss can make a big difference in your health. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), losing just 5% to 10% of your body weight can reduce your risk for having a heart attack or stroke.
You don’t have to be a member of a gym or buy fancy equipment to exercise. The key is just to get up and move. Go for a walk. Take the stairs at work. Do some push-ups or sit-ups. Dance. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity for adults each week. Children should get at least an hour of activity every day.
Aerobic exercise has a direct effect on your heart. Your heart is a muscle and exercise strengthens it. A strong heart can more efficiently pump blood to deliver oxygen and nutrients to other parts of your body. Exercise can lower your risk for developing plaque in your arteries. Plaque is a waxy substance that can clog arteries and reduce blood flow to your heart. If plaque builds up too much, it can even block the artery. This is what causes a heart attack.
Know your numbers
Every adult should know his or her blood pressure and cholesterol level. Beginning at age 18, you should have your blood pressure checked at least every 3 to 5 years. There are often no symptoms associated with high blood pressure. The best way to know for sure is to check.
Young adults who are age 20 and older and who smoke or have a family history of heart disease should have regular cholesterol screenings. Otherwise, women should begin having regular cholesterol checks when they are 45. Men should begin them at age 35. If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you should also be screened for diabetes.
No new news here. Smoking is bad for you. It causes cancer. It damages your lungs. It’s also terrible for your heart. Smoking increases your risk for heart disease. It damages the lining of your arteries. There are numerous studies that provide evidence that smoking cigarettes is a major cause of coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attacks.
If you currently smoke, it’s a great time to stop. There are medicines that can help, as well as other “quit smoking” tools such as nicotine gum and patches. Vaping is not a tool to help you quit, so don’t trade smoking for vaping. Ask your doctor to recommend a resource. Try to steer clear of secondhand smoke, as well.
Don’t take gums for granted
Many people don’t know that there is a link between oral health and heart disease. In fact, periodontal disease (gum disease) has been associated with a number of health issues, including premature birth, arthritis, and diabetes.
It is not clear whether heart disease causes gum disease or vice versa. Some medical professionals believe the bacteria that cause gum disease spread from the mouth through the body. As they spread, they make inflammation worse. This increased inflammation can trigger or worsen inflammatory conditions like heart disease. Preventing gum disease can help with your overall health. Regular brushing, flossing, and dental checkups are the best way to keep oral health in check.
If you already have gum disease, you should schedule regular cleanings with a periodontist (a dentist who specializes in gum disease and oral inflammation). There is strong evidence that controlling gum disease can help reduce your risk for heart disease.
Managing your stress can help reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Stress is often associated with high blood pressure. Chronic stress exposes your body to elevated levels of stress hormones, which also is not healthy.
Everyone deals with stress differently. The way you react to it can directly impact your health. There are breathing exercises that can help you process stress. Meditation has also proven to be an effective way to manage stress. Exercise is also a great way to deal with it. Poor ways to react to stress are to smoke, to drink alcohol, or to let it interfere with sleep.
Things to consider
Heart disease is consistently a leading cause of death in the United States. Heart disease often leads to heart attack or stroke.
A heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction), occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. This blockage is caused by a buildup of plaque (fat and cholesterol). During a heart attack, part of the heart muscle is damaged, sometimes destroyed.
Heart attacks can be fatal. If you are having a heart attack, the quicker you get medical care, the more likely you are to survive. Treatment for a heart attack varies. Depending on the severity of the attack, your doctor may need to perform surgery. During surgery, he or she will attempt to clear or repair the blocked artery. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines to thin your blood and lower blood pressure.
A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is blocked. This can happen when a vein is blocked or when it bursts. The blockage interrupts the delivery of oxygen to the brain, which causes brain cells to die.
Strokes can be fatal. If you are having a stroke, the quicker you get medical care, the more likely you are to survive. Also, quick medical care can help prevent side effects of having a stroke. Side effects include temporary or permanent paralysis and speech problems. Treatment for stroke depends on the type of stroke. In some instances, surgery is required. Other times, a stroke responds to medications.
When to see a doctor
Depending on your age, you should be receiving regular screenings from your doctor for blood pressure and cholesterol level. These are two indicators of heart disease. If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan that includes a healthy lifestyle. It also will likely include prescription medications to help control cholesterol or high blood pressure.
If you believe you are having a heart attack or stroke, you should call 911 immediately. Heart attack symptoms vary, but common heart attack signs include:
- Chest discomfort. This can be pressure, tightness, squeezing, or pain in the center of your chest. It usually lasts for more than a few minutes. Sometimes it goes away and comes back.
- Pain in one or both arms. Sometimes this pain isn’t limited to your arms. You may feel pain in your jaw, neck, back, or stomach.
- This will come on suddenly and may feel like indigestion.
- Shortness of breath.
- Cold sweat.
Stroke symptoms are often more easily recognizable than those for a heart attack. According to the AHA, here is how to spot a stroke F.A.S.T.:
- Face drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
- Arm weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech difficulty – Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
- Time to call 911 – If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you’ll know when the first symptoms appeared.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Can I inherit heart disease?
- At what age do I need to begin taking my heart health seriously?
- What is the best indicator of heart disease?
- Can I really prevent heart disease?
- What is the best way assess my heart health?
- How can I stop smoking?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Prevent Heart Disease
National Institutes of Health: Life After a Heart Attack
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Keep Your Heart Healthy
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.