Ten Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy

According to the American Heart Association, 2,300 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day—an average of 1 death every 38 seconds. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States for both men and women, affects more than nine million adults. In addition, more people die from heart disease than all cancers combined. However, the good news is that research shows that up to 90 percent of heart disease can be prevented by changing one’s diet, exercising more, and maintaining a healthy weight.

We have asked Dr. Kirsten Healy to discuss key ways to keep your heart healthy. Dr. Healy is both board certified in internal medicine and cardiology and an expert in women’s health and gender disparity. She is the Associate Medical Director of The Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine, a cardiologist at New York Cardiology Associates, an attending cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center and a member of our Medical Advisory Board.


  1. Know Your Cardiovascular Risk

There are non-modifiable risk factors, like age and family history, for developing cardiovascular disease that you can’t change. However, there are other risk factors that can be treated and controlled. Modifiable risk factors, like high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, lack of regular activity, obesity and diabetes, can be controlled and treated. Speak to your health care provider about the risk factors you should be screened for and modify your lifestyle and medication choice based on the results.

  1. Know Your Numbers

Knowing your numbers and understanding what they mean is important. This refers to understanding the key markers of heart health. The American Heart Association recommends that you be aware of five key numbers: Total cholesterol, HDL (good cholesterol), blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). By keeping these numbers within a healthy range, you can greatly improve your heart health and reduce your risk for heart disease.

Credit: American Heart Association

  1. Eat Healthy

A heart-healthy diet is one that is low in total fat, saturated fats, and trans fats. All of these raise

cholesterol levels. Focus on a high fiber diet that contains nutrient-packed foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and legumes. Fiber helps to lower blood cholesterol levels and helps you feel full so you are less likely to overeat. Eat fish like tuna or salmon that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week. There is a clear correlation between foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and a decrease in lower blood  cholesterol and lower blood pressure.

Limit sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams a day. Have a handful of nuts a day. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts and other nuts are good for your heart. Try adding them to salads for a healthier taste or using them in place of meat in pasta or other dishes.

  1. Reconsider Alcohol

Limit alcohol consumption because too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, cholesterol and caloric intake. I recommend that women limit alcohol consumption to one glass per day and abstain from all alcohol at least two days per week. A number of recent observations have challenged the long-cherished assumption that a mild to moderate amount of alcohol should be adopted by individuals trying to improve their overall health. These older observations indicated that alcohol and perhaps red wine, in particular, may have far-reaching health benefits encouraging the American Heart Association (AHA) to recommend one drink (2 ounces of alcohol) daily for women and one or two for men. More recent observations using much more rigorous scientific techniques are far more sobering.

Several cohort studies following large groups of women and men for decades have indicated a linear relationship of alcohol consumption to cancer risk. As in cigarette smoking, no threshold is apparently safe; all levels of consumption increase risk.  Further, a flurry of studies conclude that the amounts of alcohol promoted by the American Heart Association were sufficient to lead to atrophy of the brain hippocampal region, critical to the maintenance of memory. This degeneration was not observed with alcohol use limited to less than or equal to five drinks a week. The cardiovascular impact of alcohol has been a bit more complex with most studies still supporting a potential benefit of low amounts. However, regular or high alcohol use can hurt your heart and lead to diseases of the heart muscle, called cardiomyopathy. Drinking alcohol regularly also can raise your blood pressure.

Binge drinking — four or more drinks for women and five or more for men in about two hours — can cause irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias. So even if you don’t have any alcohol during the week, you shouldn’t save all of your drinking for the weekend and overdo it.

Cardiomyopathy, or heart muscle disease, is a type of progressive heart disease in which the heart is abnormally enlarged, thickened, and/or stiffened. As a result, the heart muscle’s ability to pump blood out of the heart and throughout the body is weakened, often causing heart failure and the backup of blood into the lungs. This disease can also cause abnormal heart rhythms.

Based on these observations, less is more. Anyone who endeavors to embrace a wholesome

lifestyle may reasonably abstain from alcohol altogether, or enjoy a small amount, in effect trading a minimal increase in cancer risk (from a small amount of alcohol weekly) for a reduction in  ardiovascular disease along with the social and culinary benefits alcohol may provide in the context of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Reference: Guzzo-Merello G, Cobo-Marcos M, Gallego-Delgado M, Garcia-Pavia P World J Cardiol. 2014;6(8):771


  1. Exercise to Achieve a Healthy Heart

Be active! Inactivity is a major risk factor of heart disease, similar to smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. People who exercise regularly have a 30 to 40 percent lower risk of heart disease than those who don’t. Exercise strengthens your heart muscle at the same time that it controls inflammation and helps keep weight, cholesterol and blood pressure at healthy levels. The goal for exercise should be 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Fit it in where and when you can and never sit for too long at one time. A simple brisk walk before or after work is an excellent form of exercise. Remember, a small amount of exercise is better than no exercise at all.


  1. Trim Your Waistline

Obesity is an epidemic in this country. Being overweight can substantially increase your risk of heart disease. Multiple studies have shown that half of all fatal heart attack cases are linked to being overweight and having a high body mass index (BMI) or large waist. Fat around the waistline is bad for everyone because it is metabolically active and raises blood pressure, lowers HDL and increases the risk of diabetes. Ideally a woman’s waistline should be less than 29 inches and men ideally should have a waistline smaller than 35 inches.


  1. Make Sleep a Priority

Sleep is the cornerstone to keeping your heart healthy and is markedly underrated. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep most nights. The lack of sleep can substantially increase your cardiovascular risk. Multiple studies support that those who sleep fewer than six hours a night are at increased risk for developing a stroke or heart attack in comparison to those who sleep more than seven hours a night.


  1. Schedule Routine Checkups

Regular blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol checks, as well as physical exams, are important to keep your heart healthy. Two conditions that can cause damage to your heart, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are ‘silent.’ That means that you won’t know you have them unless you get tested. Discuss with your health care provider how often you need a checkup and put the next one on your calendar now.


  1. Reduce Stress

When your stress level goes up so does your risk of heart disease, and research suggests that emotional stress can be as detrimental to your heart as conventional risk factors. Negative emotions can cause the release of hormones, like cortisol, that can threaten your overall heart health. The good news is that stress can be addressed, combatted and significantly reduced in your life. Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful: acknowledge the cause, think about it carefully and perhaps you can feel differently about the cause of the stress.


  1. Be Optimistic and Laugh

Taking a moment each day to acknowledge the blessings in your life is one way to start tapping into positive emotion. Laughter may be the best medicine and having a sense of humor is healthy. It has been shown that people who are optimistic and who are able to see the glass as half full live longer with less disease. Avoid an all-or-nothing mentality. Stay positive and don’t get discouraged.


Begin slowly to make healthy choices in all aspects of your life today. Believe in your ability to change and take care of your heart.


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