Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the risk increases as we age. The good news is that about 80 percent of heart disease and stroke are preventable! Knowing the key factors that increase your risk for heart disease can help you take steps to reduce your risk and keep your heart healthy.
Risk factors for heart disease
Below are some factors that increase your chances of heart disease and stroke. Some of these risk factors can be managed with help from your doctor. These include:
- Obesity. If you’re obese or overweight, talk with your doctor about ways to manage your weight.
- Smoking. Smoking is a major cause of high cholesterol, heart disease, and other health complications. You may think that if you’ve been smoking for decades, there is little benefit to quitting now. This is a common misconception. Quitting smoking at any time in your life will have immediate health benefits. For more information and resources on quitting smoking, click here.
- Diabetes. Heart disease is a leading cause of death in people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, it’s important to work with your care team to be sure your diabetes is well-managed.
- High blood pressure. One of the best indicators of your immediate risk of heart disease or stroke is your blood pressure. If your blood pressure is high, your doctor can work with you to control it and help prevent long-term heart problems.
- Cholesterol. Another key to your heart’s health is your cholesterol level. A simple blood test by your doctor can reveal your numbers. If your cholesterol is high, there are several ways to lower the “bad cholesterol.” Sometimes a healthcare professional may prescribe medicine, but there are also ways to lower it with lifestyle changes such as better diet and more exercise.
Other risk factors for heart disease include:
- Family history. You are also at higher risk if a grandparent, parent, or sibling had heart disease or a history of heart attack or stroke. While you can’t control this risk factor, your doctor should be aware of any heart disease in your family medical history.
- Ethnicity. We also know that some ethnic groups face an increased risk of heart disease. This is true for Black and Hispanic adults, and in recent years, heart disease rates have increased more rapidly in all Asian subgroups.
How you can improve your heart health
The first step is to do anything you can to get moving. Taking a short walk or setting aside time to stand or move throughout the day are great places to start. These small steps can make a big difference in your heart health.
The goal of exercise is to improve circulation and reduce body fat. Aerobic exercise improves circulation, so you should aim to do moderate activity for 30 minutes, most days of the week. This can be a brisk walk, swimming, or riding a stationary bike.
Strength training helps reduce body fat, increase muscle, and help manage your cholesterol. Try to do this at least twice a week with free weights or exercise bands. Combining these two types of exercise is a great way to combat heart disease.
For some exercise ideas for all ages and abilities, click here.
Talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.
Eating for a healthy heart
Food is essential. It gives us the energy our bodies need to function. The foods you choose can make a big difference in your health. When it comes to nutrition, the following general rules will help lower your risk for heart disease.
- Choose whole grains, such as wheat bread, instead of white bread. Whole grains can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and improve your natural glucose and insulin response.
- Use “healthy fats” like olive or avocado oil and avoid others such as butter. Learn more about healthy fats here.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables will provide you with the vitamins and nutrients to help your heart stay strong. They are also packed with water and fiber to help you feel full longer.
- Reduce your sodium intake. You might be surprised at how much salt is in foods, and you could be getting more salt than you should, even if you never use a salt shaker! This increased sodium can affect your heart. The American Heart Association can help you lower your sodium intake with the tips here.
- Go for lean protein. When it comes to protein, try to select lean and high-fiber proteins, such as seafood and chicken, or plant-based proteins, like legumes.
- Hydrate. Drink water throughout the day. It’s best to drink water instead of sugary sodas or juices and to limit or avoid alcohol.
- Avoid highly processed foods. Try to select food that is minimally processed as much as possible. Cookies, chips, and pre-packaged foods are all examples of highly processed foods that have been linked to heart disease and cancer.
Some comfort foods and favorite meals – the kind that may have been in your family for generations – may not always be the healthiest choices. But eating more mindfully doesn’t mean skipping them altogether. Instead, focus on making small substitutions where possible. Click here for some easy ideas for healthy swaps from the American Heart Association.
Knowledge is power. Knowing the basics of nutrition can help you make better food choices. You can learn more about the building blocks of nutrition in our healthy eating guide.
Know the signs of a heart attack
It’s so important to recognize the signs of a heart attack. The sooner you get help, the better the chances of survival. The typical symptoms include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea, vomiting, or lightheadedness.
- Discomfort or pain in the shoulder, arm, jaw, back, or neck
While chest pain is the most well-known sign of a heart attack, symptoms can be very different for women. Women might have:
- discomfort in their neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or belly.
- unexpected shortness of breath
- pain in arms
- nausea or vomiting
- sweating or dizziness
Because women can have different symptoms than men, it can sometimes be harder to diagnose a heart attack. Women should speak up if something doesn’t feel right. If there are any signs that you may be having call 9-1-1 for help immediately. It’s better to have a false alarm than a life-threatening event.
Living with heart disease
Heart disease is serious, but you can take steps to reduce your risk. The key is to get screened regularly for blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index (BMI). Working proactively with your healthcare provider to monitor your numbers, they can help you manage your heart disease. Always talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns about anything you’re experiencing.
For more tips on preventing or managing heart disease, check out:
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