There’s a burning reason to consider making changes that will boost your heart health: In this country, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, according to the CDC. And only about half of women know this. Chilling facts, but there’s an upside: There’s much you can do to prevent problems down the line, and even turn the clock back on some issues that may already be hurting your ticker. These 12 facts can arm you with knowledge that can strengthen your heart, and maybe even save your life.
Fact: any amount of smoking harms the heart.
Smoking hurts almost every organ in the body, including the heart, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute — how it functions, its structure, the blood vessels and the blood itself. And vaping ups your risk too, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of Atria New York City, and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Vaping is harmful to the heart, as well as the lungs and brain,” she says. “There’s a 71% higher risk of stroke and 59% higher risk of developing a heart attack when you vape.”
Do this: If you smoke, do everything you can to quit. Start by talking to your doctor, who can direct you to programs and possible medications that can help. Also know that secondhand smoke ups your risk as well, so send any smokers to the yard!
Fact: Sitting too much puts your heart at risk.
Sitting on our duffs for prolonged periods (whether at our desk or in front of the tube) has been shown in studies to increase heart-disease risks, by raising both blood pressure and blood sugar. Here’s why: When we sit or lie down, our legs’ muscles (the body’s largest) don’t contract much and thus don’t do their usual job of taking sugar from the blood stream or helping to break down fatty acids in the blood . Bingo: Too much sugar and fatty acids build up.
Do this: Get out of your seat. It doesn’t take much movement to counteract this: A recent small study found that getting up every 30 minutes and moving for as little as three minutes may help. A mood-boosting at-home idea: Make yourself a playlist with fave upbeat songs that are about three minutes long, and get out of that chair every half hour for a solo bop. In the office? Take breaks and walk up a couple flights of stairs.
Fact: Inflammation is a sharp indicator of heart risk.
Not all inflammation is bad — it’s a natural way that our bodies fight off trauma and injury. But when it’s chronic, it hangs around the body, builds up and has a negative impact on your health. “It’s definitely a risk marker for heart disease,” says Dr. goldberg. “Autoimmune diseases — such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome — are associated with inflammation. So is obesity.”
Do this: Think about how to lower inflammation. Regular aerobic exercise, and losing weight if needed, can reduce inflammation, says Dr. goldberg. It’s particularly important for people with an autoimmune disease, she adds. “The leading cause of death in people with autoimmune disease is heart disease, so they should pay attention to their heart and heart disease risk factors. To measure for inflammation, a high sensitivity C-reactive protein blood test can be ordered by your doctor. ”
Fact: Easing stress is a big heart-health booster.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)—and several other previous studies—showed that mental stress is a strong potential cardiac risk factor. The reason: The fight-or-flight response that accompanies stress releases hormones that cause changes in the body (for example, increasing blood pressure and body fat over time). Stress also brings about higher inflammation in the arteries.
Do this: Add some zen to your life. Think seriously about what your own personal path is to a calmer life, whether that’s downloading a meditation app (and carving out time to use it!), making sure you’re not carrying too much of the mental load in the household, starting out each day with reading an engrossing novel, or taking a mindfulness walking break each afternoon.
Fact: A healthy-eating plan can do wonders for your heart.
A heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, says the Office on Women’s Health of the US Department of Health and Human Services. And it can definitely be delicious to eat in a way that protects your ticker!
Do this: Take these five steps. Dr. Goldberg advises patients to:
- Cut way back on processed foods.
- Reduce the amount salt you eat (step 1 will help a lot with that!).
- Cut back on simple carbohydrates (such as white rice, bread, pasta and sugar).
- Eat more fruits and vegetables, at least 5 servings a day, to add fiber and important nutrients.
- Eat less saturated fat (like in fatty meats and high-fat dairy products).
A super way to hit all these steps, says Dr. Goldberg: Follow the Mediterranean diet, which is proven to lower heart disease risk.
Fact: Both cardio exercise and strength training are important for the heart.
Exercise is a great heart-booster, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It can help keep your blood pressure in check, cut back on stress hormones and help muscles pull oxygen out of the blood, among many other things. Overall, getting regular exercise — a combo of aerobic exercise and resistance training — reduces the risk of sudden heart attack and other potentially fatal cardiac events.
Do this: For optimal heart health, “get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week,” says Dr. goldberg. “And do some upper and lower strength training two or three times per week.”
Fact: Eating too much sugar increases your risk of dying from heart disease.
Most Americans eat way, way too much added sugar (meaning, the sugar added in processing by food companies, not the natural sugar found in fruit). And there’s a direct and link between added sugar intake and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in JAMA.
Do this: Cut down on added sugar. A great way to get started? Check out our guide, The Real Scoop About Sugar. It gives you step-by-step and painless ways to cut back.
Fact: It’s key to know your relatives’ heart-health history.
Having family members with heart problems raises your own risk, especially when it comes to your parents and siblings; learning about this will help arm you against developing your own ticker problems.
Do this: Dig into your family health history — and don’t assume that you know everything about your parents’ health! Ask them directly, and while you’re at it, ask about other relatives as well (their siblings, your grandparents, etc.). It’s even a smart idea to start diagramming a family heart-health tree, so that you can share the info with your doctor.
Fact: Belly fat is especially dangerous for your heart.
It’s true: After a certain age, women’s hormones send a message to their bodies to start stockpiling fat in the belly. it’s not a belly pooch that’s risky for your heart; it’s the fat you can’t see called visceral fat, that’s deeper in the abdominal cavity, studies have shown. This is true even if your overall weight is at a “healthy” level.
Do this: Keep an eye on belly fat. There’s no exercise or diet that targets belly fat (or any fat) specifically — spot reducing is a myth. But according to the American Heart Association (AHA), if you follow the federal guidelines for physical activity (150 minutes a week), this can successfully reduce abdominal fat.
Fact: Diabetes can lead to cardiovascular issues.
Type 2 diabetes, if it’s unchecked, can up your chance of heart disease, damage your arteries, and increase the risk of stroke, explains the AHA.
Do this: Take steps to lower your risk of diabetes. There are things you can do to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, says the National Institutes of Health, including: getting to a healthy weight (losing just 5 to 7 percent of your body weight can help prevent or put off diabetes, according to the NIH), getting a half-hour of exercise at least 5 days a week, and choosing healthy foods most of the time.
Fact: High blood pressure raises your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The AHA refers to high blood pressure as a “silent killer,” because usually there are no symptoms. That’s why a key heart-health step is to get blood pressure checked on the regular. This is especially important for Black people, the AHA adds, because in the US they have a higher rate of HBP than other racial and ethnic groups; it also tends to be more severe, and meds may be less effective. If HBP isn’t detected or controlled it can play havoc on one’s blood vessels and heart, as well as the brain, eyes and kidneys.
Do this: Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Talk to your doc about how often it should be monitored. If your BP turns out to be on the high side, discuss the smartest changes for you to bring it to a healthy level. Many things mentioned in this article can help reduce BP, including eating healthy, keeping an eye on weight and belly fat, easing stress, and exercising regularly. Also important, according to the Mayo Clinic: Watch your sodium levels, and keep a healthy lid on alcohol intake.
Fact: A healthy level of cholesterol can prevent blockages in your arteries.
The AHA suggests that everyone over age 20 get their cholesterol checked every four to six years—and more often than that if you have heart risk factors or already have heart disease. High levels of LDL cholesterol can lead to fatty buildup in your arteries; low levels of HDL cholesterol—which helps transport cholesterol away from your arteries—is also unhealthy. Your triglyceride levels will also be checked; if those are high and the other two levels are wonky, your risk of heart attack and stroke is higher.
Do this: Get your cholesterol checked. If you need to improve your cholesterol levels, your doctor will talk to you about healthier eating, the importance of exercise, and possibly medication.
Lisa (she/her) is the executive director of the Hearst Health Newsroom, a team that produces health and wellness content for good housekeeping, prevention and woman’s day. Formerly the executive editor of Women’s Health, The Good Life and parenting magazines and a senior editor at Esquire and glamor, she specializes in producing investigative health reports and other stories that help people live their healthiest possible lives. She has won many editing awards, including the National Magazine Award.
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