Published December 22, 2013
Heart disease is a debilitating condition for many Americans and is the leading cause of death in the United States. Certain risk factors make some individuals more likely to have heart disease.
Risk factors fall into two categories: modifiable risk factors (ones you can control such as weight), and non-modifiable risk factors (ones you can’t control, like genetics).
The good news is that your choices can influence your health. Through lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, diet modification, exercise, and managing diabetes, blood pressure and stress, you can greatly reduce your chance of heart disease.
If you or a loved one is at risk for heart disease, the most crucial step you can take for prevention is to quit smoking. Smoking is one of the leading risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Smoking causes a buildup of plaque (a fatty substance) in the arteries, which eventually leads to atherosclerosis (a hardening of the arteries). Smoking damages organs and worsens many other risk factors for heart disease. It raises blood pressure and reduces your amount of good cholesterol (HDL), which can cause increased stress on your arteries.
Smoking cessation has been proven to reduce heart disease. Many states have begun programs to limit or reduce smoking in the general population. In the states where smoking reduction programs have been successful, there’s been a decrease in hospitalizations for heart disease.
The effects of quitting smoking are quite sudden: your blood pressure will decrease, your circulation will improve, and your oxygen supply will increase. These changes will boost your energy level and make exercise—another key component to preventing heart disease—easier. Over time, your body will begin to heal itself, and after one year of being smoke-free, your risk for heart disease will reduce by 50 percent. In addition to quitting smoking, you should avoid others who smoke, as secondhand smoke can also negatively impact your health.
Nutrition and Diet
Nutrition and diet play a huge role in preventing heart disease. Research suggests that even if you have a family history or genetic predisposition for heart disease, simply maintaining a good diet can reduce your chances for heart disease. Most research has shown that a diet high in raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids (often found in fish) helps prevent heart disease. The Mediterranean-style diet in particular is known to reduce the occurrence of heart disease. Along with increased servings of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish twice a week, the Mediterranean-style diet focuses on the use of olive oil (healthy fat) and herbs, consuming nuts, and limiting red meat to one to two times a month.
To maintain a healthy diet, you’ll also need to avoid or limit some foods that worsen heart disease. This includes foods with high amounts of sugar and salt, alcoholic beverages, and foods with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Don’t forget that watching calories is important, too. Know how many calories per day you should be getting and focus on eating a variety of foods that are high in nutrients and low in calories.
Exercising and Losing Weight
Along with diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are vital to lowering your blood pressure and preventing heart disease. Typically, experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, or 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Exercise doesn’t have to be intensive—simple activities like walking your dog, cleaning your house, or performing yard work count as exercise. They key is to stay active.
The ultimate goal of exercising is to maintain a healthy weight. To do this, you have to balance your caloric intake with the amount of exercise you get. Find out your body mass index (BMI) to set weight loss goals. By maintaining a healthy weight, you’ll lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk for other complications.
Diabetes is a serious risk factor for heart disease. It has very harmful effects on multiple organs in the body when left untreated and can lead to peripheral artery disease, stroke, and other complications. If you have diabetes, manage your condition to prevent heart disease. Prevention includes regular checkups with your health care provider, eating a healthy diet, and exercising. In some cases, diabetes is managed with medications. By choosing a healthy lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of heart disease and limit the effects of diabetes.
Lowering Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, can cause increased stress on your cardiovascular system and contribute to heart disease. If you have high blood pressure, you can lower it through diet, exercise, weight management, and avoiding stress and smoking. One of the best ways to lower blood pressure is to limit your salt intake and alcohol consumption.
If you know you have high blood pressure, work closely with your health care provider and monitor your blood pressure on a regular basis. Take any medication your provider prescribes for your blood pressure as directed. High blood pressure is difficult to detect, so if you’re unsure whether or not you have it, seek testing from a health care provider.
Stress affects everyone in different ways. Though it’s not well understood, there’s a link between people who experience high amounts of stress over long periods and heart disease. Stress can cause sleep loss, pain and headaches, and can exhaust the body. Chronic stress can cause the heart to work harder, which will worsen any other risk factors for heart disease you may have.
Fortunately, there are many stress-reducing habits you can adopt to help. Physical activity or exercise is one way of reducing stress. Slowing down and performing relaxation exercises or breathing techniques, such as those found in yoga, are also helpful. Letting go of worries and spending more time with family and friends also contribute to a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle. It’s also important to get enough sleep.
Although the diagnosis of heart disease is frightening, there are many lifestyle choices you can make to help prevent this disease. Quitting smoking, nutrition, exercising, and reducing stress and high blood pressure can have a significant impact on preventing heart disease.