Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States and many other parts of the world. While some risk factors are out of our control, such as genetics or family history, there are many steps we can take to lower our personal risk. In this article, we will explore some of the major modifiable risk factors for heart disease and provide evidence-based recommendations on how to improve your heart health through lifestyle changes.
Know Your Risk Factors
The first step to lowering your risk of heart disease is understanding the factors that may put you more at risk:
- Age - Our risk increases as we get older. Most heart diseases affect those over age 45. However, it's never too early to take preventative measures.
- Smoking - Smoking significantly increases your risk. It damages artery walls and raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- High blood pressure - Having hypertension, or blood pressure consistently over 140/90 mmHg, greatly increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
- High cholesterol - When LDL or "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides are too high, it contributes to plaque building up in the arteries. Total cholesterol over 200 mg/dL and LDL over 130 mg/dL pose concern.
- Obesity/abdominal fat - Extra weight, especially around the waistline, can lead to or worsen other risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Diabetes - This chronic condition damages blood vessels and nerves over time if not controlled through diet, exercise, and medication. It approximately doubles the risk.
- Sedentary lifestyle - Not getting enough physical activity on a daily or weekly basis allows risk factors to go uncontrolled or worsen over time.
- Genetics/family history - Your risk increases if a parent, sibling or other close relative has had a heart attack or stroke before age 55 for men, 65 for women. This can't be changed but you should be extra vigilant.
- Gender - Men have a higher risk before menopause due to hormones, but heart disease affects both equally after menopause unless risk factors are controlled.
Getting an accurate assessment of your risk factors is key to focusing your prevention efforts in the right areas. Consult your doctor for cholesterol tests and to determine if you have prehypertension or high blood pressure needing treatment.
Adopt a Heart-Healthy Diet
One of the simplest but most impactful ways to lower cardiovascular risk is through diet. Following a nutritious, heart-healthy eating plan can help control cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar levels. Here are some of the top guidelines and recommendations:
- Choose whole foods as often as possible. These include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and healthy fats.
- Limit red and processed meats, which have been linked to higher heart disease risk if eaten daily or in large amounts. Aim for less than 5 ounces per week.
- Focus on lean proteins like fish, skinless poultry, eggs, beans, lentils and low-fat dairy. Aim for at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week for essential omega-3s.
- Choose healthy fats over saturated and trans fats whenever possible. Great sources include olive, canola, and nut oils; fatty fish; nuts and seeds; and avocados.
- Watch added sugars. They provide empty calories and are linked to weight gain and higher health risks when consumed in excess.
- Drink plenty of water and limit sugary drinks, which are linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease risks.
- Watch portion sizes on starches like breads, pasta, and rice. Go for whole grain varieties whenever available.
- Eat at least 4 servings of fruits and veggies daily for nutrients, fiber, antioxidants and more.
- Be mindful of salt intake and sodium levels. Aim for less than 2,300 mg sodium per day. Read labels and go easy on added salt.
- Consult with a registered dietitian if needed to help you design an individualized eating plan to meet your needs and risk factor goals.
Following the Mediterranean or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) pattern, which emphasize these principles, have been shown in research to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease risk over time. So adopt a mainly plant-focused, balanced diet to fuel your whole health.
Get Moving With Regular Physical Activity
In addition to a healthy diet, physical activity is vital for heart health and controlling many risk factors. Most major health organizations recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly. Aim to spread activities throughout the week rather than doing it all at once.
Some heart-healthy exercise options include:
- Walking briskly - It's easy on joints and counts as moderate activity. One mile generally burns about 100 calories.
- Jogging or running - If done gradually to build endurance, it can be low-impact.
- Cycling - Indoor biking or outside cycling provides cardio benefits.
- Swimming - Gentle on joints and muscles. Lap swimming or water aerobics are excellent options.
- Dancing - Social or Latin dancing burns over 400 calories per hour for many participants.
- Strength training - Lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises two to three times weekly helps preserve muscle mass and metabolism as we age.
- Yard work - Raking, gardening, mowing the lawn burns 150-250 calories per hour depending on intensity.
- Circuit training - Combining aerobic and resistance moves provides even more benefits in less time.
- Home-based videos - Following online or DVD workouts with cardio, strength and flexibility components is convenient.
Beyond aiming for total weekly minutes, finding exercises you enjoy makes staying active easier and more sustainable in the long run. And don't forget to include some light stretching and yoga moves to help maintain flexibility and balance as we age. Regular activity is great preventive medicine and treatment rolled into one.
Manage Stress Levels
High levels of ongoing stress can negatively impact many aspects of our health, including cardiovascular function. Unmanaged stress leads to higher levels of “fight or flight” hormones like cortisol and adrenaline surging through our bodies too often. This can temporarily raise blood pressure and cause inflammation - two risk factors for heart disease. Stress also tends to prompt unhealthy habits like poor sleep, overeating, smoking, or drinking too much alcohol as coping mechanisms.
The good news is, managing our responses to stress helps to mitigate these risks. Some effective stress management techniques include:
- Deep breathing - Taking slow, deep breaths engages our parasympathetic nervous system to help counteract the "stress response."
- Yoga or stretching - Gentle poses, not rushed, improve flexibility and relieve stress and tension in muscles and mind.
- Meditation - Taking 10 minutes daily to sit quietly and let thoughts flow without attachment lowers blood pressure and provides perspective.
- Spending time in nature - Being outdoors among green spaces has proven calming effects. Go for a relaxing walk regularly.
- Social support - Having strong relationships to confide in and encourage each other lifts both mental and cardiovascular health.
- Try music, art, or journaling - Creative outlets channel emotions in productive ways.
- Manage time effectively - Feeling rushed or overwhelmed promotes stress. Prioritize tasks, set limits.
- Consider relaxation apps - Guided imagery, relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation via app make stress relief portable.
Finding the activities that work best for you and fitting brief stress-reducing rituals into daily life pays dividends for heart health by lowering overall physiologic "wear and tear" impacts of chronic stress.
Manage Medical Conditions
Anyone living with certain medical conditions should ensure they are controlled as tightly as possible to lower cardiac risk. This includes:
- Diabetes - Maintaining blood sugar levels within target ranges helps prevent damage to blood vessels and nerves. Take medications as prescribed and follow your diet, exercise, and monitoring plan closely.
- High blood pressure or cholesterol - Work diligently with your doctor to lower numbers through lifestyle changes and medications if needed. Even modest reductions provide benefits.
- Family history of early heart disease - Be extra vigilant about optimizing all modifiable risk factors to compensate for genetic predispositions.
Some may require lifestyle adjustments or medical guidance beyond what's recommended for average risk individuals. Don't hesitate to seek the support and treatment plans needed from your healthcare team.
See Your Doctor Regularly
Along with making consistent healthy choices, continuing regular checkups with your primary care provider is vital for heart health. During visits:
- Get your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, weight, and other markers checked.
- Discuss any concerns, risk factors, or questions with your doctor.
- Update your doctor on your progress meeting lifestyle goals like diet, exercise, stress relief habits.
- Inform your doctor about any signs or symptoms you've noticed so conditions can be caught early.
- Followup on any needed tests the doctor recommends based on risk levels and family history.
- Ask for guidance tailoring your prevention plan as your needs or conditions change over time.
Catching and addressing potential issues promptly gives you the best chances of slowing or even stopping disease progression before it starts to negatively impact your quality of life down the road.
Focus on Wellness, Not Just Disease
Treating heart health as an ongoing lifestyle instead of reacting only when illness strikes serves us best in the long run. Choose nourishing whole foods, find enjoyable ways to exercise regularly, cultivate stress resilience habits, connect socially, get adequate sleep, and refrain from risky behaviors. Listen to your body's needs and make time for preventive checkups your doctor advises based on your profile.
With diligent self-care and following evidence-based guidelines, most individuals can significantly lower their risk of developing cardiovascular disease over a lifetime. Focus on continuously fortifying your overall well-being - not just avoiding disease. With commitment, a heart-healthy lifestyle is achievable and protective no matter your age or risk factors today.
The biggest threat to our hearts is often the habits we pick up over years or even decades. But it's never too late to start implementing protective changes. By understanding your risk profile and addressing modifiable factors through diet, exercise, stress relief, doctor visits, and abstaining from tobacco, you give yourself the very best chance at long-term heart health and overall wellness. Small strides lead to big results over time.