8 Ways to Protect Your Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, and some medical conditions can put people at even higher risk. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your heart health—and it’s never too early, or too late, to get started.

1. Exercise Regularly

“The heart is a pump,” says Sanul Corrielus, M.D,. a cardiologist affiliated with Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “The more we exercise, the stronger and more efficient our heart gets.”

The key to exercise is to keep it up over the course of your life. Corrielus says you should be, “exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, to help maintain a healthy weight and manage stress.” If you haven’t been exercising that much, start small, with 10- to 15-minute power walks and build from there.

2. Eat Heart-Healthy Foods

“A nutritious diet free of processed food, limited in salt and trans fats, and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is essential to maintain a healthy heart,” says Corrielus.

A few simple steps can have you eating healthier in no time. The American Heart Association recommends replacing red meat with skinless poultry and fish and replacing full-fat dairy with low-fat options. The goal is to develop new eating patterns that will last you a lifetime.

“Rather than snacking on food made from refined carbohydrates, stock your refrigerator with fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Lisa Richards, nutritionist and co-author of The Ultimate Candida Diet Program

. “Cucumber, dried bananas, and other crunchy fruit and vegetables make excellent chip replacements that can be used in hummus and other dips.”

3. Maintain a Healthy Weight

“Exercise and healthy eating are the best free preventive measures available to all of us,” says Nasrien Ibrahim, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Maintaining a healthy weight via exercise and a well-balanced diet is important because obesity is a risk factor for heart disease.”

Obesity is also associated with chronic conditions like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, which are both cardiac risk factors. Achieving a healthy weight is an essential investment in your long-term health outcomes.

4. Stop Smoking and Vaping

“Smoking—including secondhand smoke—is a major contributor to heart disease,” says Corrielus. When you smoke, you inhale thousands of dangerous chemical compounds, including carbon monoxide, tar, and arsenic. These substances can cause irreparable damage to your heart, arteries, and lungs.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that e-cigarettes and vape products are safe. While these products don’t typically contain tobacco, they do contain nicotine—often more nicotine then a regular cigarette.

“Nicotine affects the heart by causing inflammation inside the arteries of the body,” says Corrielus. “It also contributes to elevated blood pressure, both of which have [harmful] effects on heart health.”

It’s no secret that smoking cessation can be challenging, but there are many strategies available to help you. Ask your doctor about medications or products you can safely use to help you quit once and for all.

5. Get Regular Checkups

Your primary-care doctor is your partner in the fight against heart disease, and you should see yours regularly. They’ll help you manage and monitor risk factors that may lead to heart problems. They can monitor your blood pressure and blood sugars, and treat you, if necessary.

“Hypertension and diabetes are both risk factors for heart disease, and occasionally, people can have either of these without experiencing symptoms, so regular monitoring is important,” says Ibrahim.

Your primary care doctor can also refer you to a specialist, if needed.

6. Follow Your Doctor’s Orders

Thankfully, we live in a time in which heart disease can often be successfully managed with medication.

“If you have a heart condition, don't forget to take your medication,” says Yan Katsnelson, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon in Northbrook, Illinois. “Likewise, make sure that your risk factors for heart disease are under control: blood pressure, blood sugar (if you have diabetes risk factors), and cholesterol.”

Doctors use a variety of medications to help prevent issues like high blood sugar, hypertension, and high cholesterol. There are also medications that thin the blood, prevent blood clots, and keep the heart beating in rhythm. Make sure you’re taking all your medications, including over-the-counter meds, as directed. If you’re having trouble or concerns with any of them, talk to your doctor.

7. Know Your Risk Factors

There are a number of things that can increase your risk of heart disease, including genetics, pre-existing conditions, lifestyle, and BMI (body mass index). If you have a condition that puts you at higher risk of things like hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol, you may be more likely to develop heart disease. That’s why it’s important that you work with your doctor to control your existing condition, Ibrahim says.

8. Know When to Get Help

About half of all Americans either have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or smoke—all of which are key risk factors for heart attack. Men over age 45 and women over age 55 are also at higher risk.

If you notice any symptoms of a heart attack, it’s important to act immediately. Common signs of heart attack include:

  • Discomfort or pain in the chest or arms, that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

These symptoms can range from mild to severe. Sometimes, people experience symptoms for days or weeks prior to experiencing cardiac arrest. Chest pain (angina) during periods of activity is often a sign that the heart is not getting the blood it needs to function normally. This happens when plaque narrows the arteries to the point where a heart attack may be imminent.

If you experience any unusual chest pain, call 911 right away.

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