10 Ways to Prevent a Heart Attack

by Matt McMillen Health Writer

Heart attacks can happen without warning—and that’s a scary thought. So is how we sometimes describe them: “widow maker,” “massive coronary,” and “silent heart attack.” But even with all the fear that surrounds heart attacks, there’s plenty to be hopeful about. Most important? There’s plenty you can do to lower the odds of having one. And the rewards can be pretty great, including having a better sex life, more energy, and the biggest incentive of all: a longer, healthier life. You with us? Let’s get started.

mother and son looking at family album

Know Your Family's Heart History

Did your maternal grandmother have heart problems? How about your own father? Be sure to ask. “Family history of a heart attack is a major risk factor,” says cardiologist Guy Mintz, M.D., director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, NY. If a first-degree relative—a parent or a sibling—has had one, your risk increases by as much as 90%, compared to someone without a genetic risk factor. Your doctor can help you develop a heart-health plan. While you can’t change history, you can make changes to lower your risk for heart trouble in the future.

senior man riding bike

Move That Body

It’s hard to overstate the heart benefits of regular exercise. It can help you achieve—and maintain—healthy blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body weight. “Regular aerobic exercise is part of the preventive foundation,” Dr. Mintz says. It also keeps your heart muscle strong. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise at least five days a week. Think brisk walks, bicycle rides, or swims at the local pool. If you like, divide your exercise into three 10-minute sweat-breaking mini-workouts. If it’s been a while since you've exercised regularly, talk to your doctor before you start.

Don't Skimp on Sleep

Getting the right amount of Zzzs—between 6 to 9 hours per night—could help prevent a heart attack. One recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who habitually slept too little had a 20% higher risk of cardiac arrest. However, too much sleep bumped it up to 34%. It’s unclear why. However, sleep problems such as obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts—can lead to inflammation and narrowing of the arteries, both of which boost the risk of a heart attack, says Dr. Mintz.

senior woman meditating in yoga class

Say "Namaste" to Stress Relief

“There is a strong mind-heart relationship,” says Satjit Bhusri, M.D., a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Stress causes inflammation throughout the body, and that can lead to heart disease, says Dr. Bhusri. Ongoing uneasiness at work—where we spend most of our waking hours—including impossible deadlines, long hours, and toxic office politics may boost your risk of a heart attack. While a job change may not be possible immediately, you can take steps to counter the fallout. Try deep breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation, tai chi, or yoga. And if you need real backup, see a therapist.

Stub Out That Cigarette

Dr. Mintz knows how addictive nicotine is—and how most smokers would do anything to quit. If you smoke, he urges you to give quitting another try. Smoking does more than damage your lungs. It causes inflammation and narrows blood vessels, both of which dramatically up your odds of having heart attack. In fact, smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. If you’ve been struggling to quit, talk to your doctor, and seek support if you need it from the American Heart Association (or other established resources) to become tobacco-free. The best time to start? Right now.

doctor testing patient's blood pressure

Pay Attention to Your Blood Pressure

“High blood pressure is a silent killer,” says Dr. Bhusri. “It generally has no symptoms, but its elevation and fluctuations can lead to a heart attack.” Start by learning your numbers. A healthy blood pressure is 120/80, or lower. When it rises significantly above that, you may require medications to bring your high blood pressure, or hypertension, under control. But lifestyle changes can help, too. Slim down if you’re overweight. Get plenty of exercise. And follow a healthy, low-sodium eating plan, like the Mediterranean diet or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.

woman getting blood test

Keep Your Cholesterol in Check

Stay heart smart by monitoring your cholesterol, which insulates nerves and builds new cells. Your body usually makes enough on its own, but animal-based foods (dairy, eggs, and meats) give you additional cholesterol—sometimes too much. When levels get high, fatty deposits build up in the walls of your arteries, narrowing them and leading to heart disease. There are two kinds of cholesterol: “good” HDL and “bad” LDL. The healthiest targets: Your HDL should be 60 or more, and your LDL should be under 100.

Woman Sitting On Sofa Checking Blood Sugar Level With Glucometer

Manage Your Diabetes

Diabetes is hard on your heart. Unchecked, high blood-sugar levels damage your blood vessels, as well as the nerves that control them and your heart, according to the National Institutes of Health. Other concerns that often come with diabetes—obesity, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and lack of exercise—can also harm your ticker. The good news? Anything you do to manage your diabetes helps your heart—and vice versa. Follow a healthy eating plan and get active at the gym, outdoors, or any place where you can break a sweat. And take your diabetes medications as directed.

Drink With Your Heart in Mind

Enjoy a beer or glass of wine at dinner! But limit yourself to one drink—a 12 oz. beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine, or a 1.5 oz. serving of liquor—per night if you’re a woman, or two drinks if you’re a man. But any more increases your risk for heart disease, raises blood pressure, boosts fat in your bloodstream, and leads to weight gain, all of which strain your heart, as does the dehydration that follows a round of drinking. One study found that routine heavy drinking dramatically boosts your risk of heart attack. So, imbibe if you enjoy it—just in moderation!

doctor talking to senior patient

Keep Tabs on Your Ticker

To reap some of the benefits of a healthy heart—did we mention a better sex life?—see your doctor on the regular. Starting at age 40 routine screenings to prevent a heart attack include blood pressure monitoring, a fasting lipoprotein profile (a blood test that measures “good” and “bad” cholesterol levels), blood-sugar monitoring, and checking waist circumference (too much belly fat has been connected to increased cardiovascular risk). “It is all about prevention,” says Dr. Bhusri. And about that boost to your sex life: When your arteries are clear and your heart is strong, blood flow is better all around (wink)!

Matt McMillen
Meet Our Writer
Matt McMillen

Matt McMillen has been a freelance health reporter since 2002. In that time he’s written about everything from acupuncture to the Zika virus. He covers breaking medical news and the latest medical studies, profiles celebrities, and crafts easy to digest overviews of medical conditions. His work has appeared, both online and in print, in The Washington Post, WebMD Magazine, Diabetes Forecast, AARP, and elsewhere.