How You Can Prevent Heart Disease—Even If It Runs In Your Family.
Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women, according to the CDC. So it’s no surprise that every week, experts publish new research connecting a behavior or environmental factor with heart disease.
Recent studies have linked loud noise exposure to heart damage and flu viruses to heart attacks. And just last week, a new study found a new study found that taking omega-3 supplements may not provide any protection for people with heart disease—a finding that contradicts earlier research.
Confronted with so much confusing and contradictory information, it can be difficult for health-conscious people to figure out what factors and behaviors truly lower their heart disease risks. Making the right choices can seem like a struggle.
“First and foremost, it’s critically important to be aware of your family risk and history of heart disease—especially early heart disease,” says Laurence Sperling, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Emory University Heart Disease Prevention Center.
While heart disease is so common that it strikes every family, cases of heart disease that arise at an early age—before 50 for men, or before 60 for women—may be indicative of an underlying genetic predisposition to heart trouble, Sperling says.
“For most people, heart disease risk comes from a mixture of genes and environment and behavior,” he explains. “But some people get a really strong dose of risk from their genes.”
If you know your parents, grandparents or close relatives suffered from heart disease at young ages, your doctor needs to know. He or she can order specific gene or blood tests that may reveal you have a high risk for heart trouble. In some cases, a super-healthy lifestyle may not be enough to safeguard your heart. “These people may need medications—a daily aspirin or statins—to reduce their risks,” Sperling says.
So, step one if you’re worried about heart disease: Know your family history, and let your doctor know if you have relatives who suffered from heart trouble at a young age.
Assuming you’ve taken that precaution, what else can you do to significantly lower your risks? A lot. A large- scale 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, even among patients with a strong heredity risk for heart disease, the right lifestyle choices could slash that risk by roughly 50%.
Exercise at least once a week.
More exercise is better. But even a once-weekly bout of physical activity is associated with a 12% drop in heart disease risk, according to that comprehensive NEJM study.
“The heart is a muscle, and raising your heart rate with regular exercise is one of the best ways to ensure it stays strong,” says Martha Gulati, MD, a member of the American College of Cardiologists and division chief of cardiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix.
Gulati says many of us get caught up with “the latest and greatest” trends in fitness. And those are great if you want to try them. But you don’t need to do hot yoga or CrossFit to protect your heart.
Whether you enjoy running, cycling, swimming, or fast-paced vinyasa yoga, try to exercise at a moderate to vigorous pace—something that gets your heart rate elevated—at least once a week.
Take at least 5,000 steps a day.
Yes, walking is a workout—especially if you’re walking fast enough to elevate your breathing and heart rate. But if walking is your preferred mode of exercise, a single weekly bout isn’t enough to safeguard your heart.
You should be aiming for at least 5,000 steps a day, shows research from Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
More and more research shows a sedentary lifestyle is a major predictor of heart disease. And the LSU study found 5,000 steps is the daily minimum that pushes you from a sedentary lifestyle into an active lifestyle, which slashes your risk for heart disease—as well as other major health issues such as diabetes and obesity.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
The world of dieting is so rife with charlatanry and talk of “miracles” that identifying a truly healthy diet can be confusing. But decades of research show eating a variety of whole fruits and vegetables is the foundation of a heart-healthy diet.
“You want a range of colors on your plate—something a child would like,” Gulati says.
A fruit or vegetable’s color is determined by its nutrient components. So by eating plenty of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples with your leafy greens, you’ll ensure your body and heart are getting what they need.
“We know that getting vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables is far better than taking a multi-vitamin or supplement,” she adds.
You probably don’t need to be told this, but smoking is so rotten for your heart that some of the warnings are worth repeating.
“Smoking is the number one cause of heart disease,” Gulati says. “It’s also the most easily reversible risk factor.”
She adds that “easy” may not be the right word to describe the gargantuan task of quitting. But in terms of quickly lowering your risks, quitting smoking is easily the best thing you can do for your heart.
The NEJM study mentioned earlier found not smoking could lower a person’s risk for heart disease by nearly 50%.