Heart disease is responsible for one in every four deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But making just a few key changes could save millions of these lives.
In fact, a worldwide effort to lower people’s blood pressure, reduce their sodium intake, and eliminate trans fats could prevent 94 million early deaths from cardiovascular disease over the next 25 years, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study, published in the journal Circulation, used data from the World Health Organization and other studies and found:
- Scaling up high blood pressure treatment to 70% of the world’s population could extend 39.4 million people’s lives. Many people don’t even know they have high blood pressure, says the CDC.
- Reducing sodium intake by 30% could extend another 40 million lives (and continue to help reduce high blood pressure).
- Completely eliminating trans fat from food production could save 14.8 million people from early death. Thankfully, this is already handled for us in the United States, where trans fats are essentially nonexistent, thanks to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban that went into full effect in 2018.
Take These Steps to Improve Your Heart Health
While global health officials figure out how to make that happen on a larger scale, there’s a lot you can do right now to lower your own risk, according to lead study author Goodarz Danaei, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of global health at Harvard Chan School. Start with these four steps:
- Don’t put off that checkup. “Make sure you check your blood pressure at least once a year in an annual checkup and follow your doctor’s advice [for managing it,]” Dr. Danaei recommends. Scheduling a yearly visit with your doctor will also give you the opportunity to check in on the rest of your health, get recommendations tailored specifically to your health needs, and more. It’s also the perfect time to ask those health questions you’ve been harboring all year long (pro tip: Keep a running list of “Questions for My Doc” in your phone so you don’t forget).
- Follow your doctor’s orders. If your doctor does tell you your blood pressure is too high, they’ll likely recommend you stick to regular exercise and work hard to manage your stress, says the Mayo Clinic. Tackle both at the same time by going for a 20 to 30-minute walk on most days of the week—exercise has its own stress-busting benefits. Your M.D. also may prescribe you meds for high blood pressure, so make sure you follow their instructions to a T—that means taking your pill at the recommended time each day.
- Steer clear of extra salt. Dr. Danaei urges: “Don’t add salt to the food at the table and during cooking.” While this may be tricky for salt lovers, especially those of us who love to cook and pack our dishes with flavor, try to at least cut back on all that salt shaking. Extra sodium in your blood can put pressure on your vessels, causing your blood pressure to increase over time, according to the American Heart Association. The FDA recommends people keep to a limit of less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day—that's about 1 teaspoon of salt. With packaged foods, you can use the Percent Daily Value info on labels to keep track: Try to only buy products that contain less than 20% of your daily sodium value per serving.
- Skip the packaged foods when you can. While people in the U.S. don’t have to worry about trans fats in their food anymore, it’s still wise to avoid packaged foods whenever possible, says Dr. Danaei. Bags of chips and frozen or microwavable meals are highly processed and packed with high amounts of sodium and other not-so-healthy ingredients. Here are some healthy alternatives to your favorite go-tos.
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The Emotional Toll of Heart Disease