Heart disease, like so many chronic health problems, starts insidiously — sometimes as a slow accumulation of plaque, sometimes from the creep of extra weight, salt, or nicotine. The many and varied risks of poor heart health truly make heart disease a silent killer, one that accounts for 25 percent of all deaths in the United States alone each year.
Despite the serious consequences of heart disease, including heart attack or stroke, hope exists for patients who struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or other heart disease risks. Research from 2016 supports the premise that good lifestyle choices counteract even genetic risks of heart damage. Risk of a cardiac event in patients with genetic predisposition and a diagnosis of coronary artery disease were cut in half when patients followed a healthy diet and exercise plan.
Knowing about heart-healthy habits and putting them all into place are two different things, though, and big changes can be difficult even if you know they’re the right thing to do. But small behavior changes can become good habits that put you on the path to a healthier heart. To get started, try these five tips:
1. Assess your hidden heart disease risks
Heart disease is not the result of a single cause. So many different factors about our family history, where and how we live, and what choices we make daily contribute to or protect from burdens on the heart. Do you think that you already have a heart-healthy diet and exercise routine, but you want to be sure it’s enough? Or do you know that there are ways you could improve, like giving up smoking, but you need to hear that the extra effort is worth it? Answer just seven questions in the Life’s Simple 7 quiz from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association for an accurate picture of your heart health.
2. Know and share your family history
It’s true that many causes of heart disease stem from controllable choices (like smoking) or socioeconomic factors (like accessibility to care, foods, and gyms). Some causes, however, are written on your genes (like the likelihood of artery disease or obesity). People with a family history of heart disease have to work even harder to avoid strokes, heart attacks, or heart surgeries. One specific example of a genetic risk is familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH — one of the most common rare diseases. If your family members have struggled with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity, and if your own heart disease is not responding well to diet and exercise changes, be sure to share your family history with your doctor. Giving them a bigger picture can help them decide the best course of your treatment.
3. Become more mindful
Stress is a fact of life, one that directly affects your heart’s ability to work efficiently. Sometimes stressors can be helpful, like when adrenaline helps you finish exercise, overcome fear, or complete a work deadline. Stressors like anger or anxiety, though, carry negative effects on the heart muscle without the positive consequences. A study from 2015 suggests that mindful living can reverse the negative effects of stress, regardless of age, birth weight, gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. People who practiced mindful behaviors were more likely to exercise and less likely to eat junk food or smoke. Mindful activities can range from meditation to focused breathing and may reduce blood pressure and stress on arteries directly, or indirectly by reducing perceived stress and feelings of anxiety or depression. Regular daily breaks for peaceful moments, at least, can help you cope with inevitable stresses more calmly, too.
4. Shop smarter for foods you already eat
Although the American Heart Association (AHA), the USDA, and others encourage well-rounded healthy recipes and meal plans, they can seem overwhelming, especially if they are nothing like your current eating habits. Instead of eliminating snacks, deli meats, or other common foods entirely, try to make just one deliberate change. A classic example is salt; its unhealthy effects on heart and arteries result in part by holding water in blood vessels, making it harder for the heart to pump well. Most of the salt in U.S. diets comes from prepared or processed foods, so shopping smart is essential. Product labels can be confusing, though, and shopping in a rush makes you less likely to look at them anyway. To help, the AHA created the Heart-Check label, placed on the front of packages of foods, and the AHA has compiled an updated list of products to check out before you hit the grocery store. Plan ahead at home to select healthy low-sodium prepared foods and salt-free spice mixes for your home cooking.
The health benefits of exercise are clear: better muscle tone, less fat, and more energy are just some positives. What is less clear is how much and what kind of exercise is needed. People often believe that exercise requires a long-time commitment, a lot of sweat, and a primary focus on moving the heart rate up and down during a cardiovascular workout. The truth is a bit simpler and might surprise you. Brisk walking for as little as 15 minutes a day — all at once or in shorter bursts — can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 percent and prevent heart failure. Walking increases your heart rate, helps the heart work better by moving oxygen well to muscles and tissues, and offers an easy way to add a healthy habit socially. You don’t have to wait until you can afford to join a gym or buy home equipment; walking for exercise can strengthen your heart for free and get you enough energy to try other exercises later on.
Have you tried any of these or other easy ways to take better care of your heart?
Nicole Van Hoey is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at Bloglovin’.