By Eirish Sison
About 1.2 million people suffer a heart attack each year, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers may be scary, but here's some good news: From munching on oatmeal and berries to quitting smoking to spending more time outside, there are simple things you can do daily to lower your risk. Here are 25 ways to take control of your heart health.
One major step toward lowering your risk for heart disease is actually knowing which risk factors you have. While some risk factors — like age or having a family history of heart disease — cannot be changed, others — like having high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, physically inactive or smoking cigarettes — can be managed or remedied. Your doctor can help you assess your risk factors and help you devise a heart-smart plan to reduce them.
Cigarette smoking is one of the major changeable risk factors for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, pack-a-day smokers have more than two times the risk of heart attack than people who have never smoked. Exposure to cigarette smoke can even put nonsmokers at risk for heart disease — so quitting will not just be good for you, but for the people around you.
Ready to butt out for good? Here are the best ways to kick the smoking habit.
A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found an association between getting a seasonal flu vaccine and a lower chance of having a first heart attack. You get protection from the flu too, of course!
Seeing your doctor for a regular tune-up ensures that any irregularities with your blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels will be spotted — and dealt with — as early as possible.
A study from Singapore found that people who got their teeth cleaned ("scaled") by a dentist or dental hygienist at least once a year had a lower risk of heart attack than those who never had a professional cleaning, because tooth scaling seems to reduce bacteria growth that causes inflammation and can up your risk for heart attack or stroke.
If you're diabetic, your risk of heart attack is nearly doubled compared to someone who does not have diabetes. Keeping your blood sugar in check can help you manage your diabetes and lower your heart attack risk. Here are some diabetes-friendly snacks and diabetes-friendly breakfasts to help you along the way.
You're probably tired of diet programs that are all promise and no results, but the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is not one of them. This NIH-approved diet is backed by research and was designed to help lower blood pressure and prevent hypertension. The plan is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and prioritizes fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products.
Read the National Institutes of Health's guide to following the DASH diet.
While red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of blood clot formation and heart attack, drinking too much alcohol can also cause spikes in blood pressure and higher triglyceride levels, increasing your risk for heart disease. If you decide to drink, limit yourself to one drink a day for women and one to two drinks each day for men.
Research supports a link between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease. Chicken and fish have less saturated fat and cholesterol than red meat. Plus, the unsaturated fats in many types of fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can actually help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Too busy in the morning for breakfast? You're not doing your heart a favor. Eating whole-grain cereal for breakfast even just once per week has been found to reduce risk for heart failure by 14 percent. That number goes even higher with more frequent servings — those who ate whole grain breakfast cereal seven times a week or more reduced their risk by 28 percent.
This fragrant spice is antioxidant-rich, tastes delicious, and is good for both your heart health and your blood sugar. You need quite a bit (at least three teaspoons) to reap the benefits, so try using cinnamon where you would otherwise add sugar (like in coffee or oatmeal), or even try adding it to savory dishes!
You'll cut saturated fat from your diet, but still get the boost of calcium you need.
Some pre-packaged food products marketed as healthy choices are actually loaded with sugar and fat, so make sure to double-check the nutrition label. Watch out for food that has too much salt, sugar, saturated or trans fats.
If you need an excuse to trade in your car keys for a bike helmet, here's one. A 2009 Swedish study found that people who regularly drive to work have a whopping 70 percent higher risk for heart attack than those who take a more active route like walking, biking or public transportation. Lowering your gas expenses is an added bonus!
Being overweight and/or physically inactive puts you at greater risk for heart attack, so a good diet and proper exercise is key. Why not recruit a friend to work toward better heart health with you? Whether you join a recreational sports team, buddy-up on a gym membership or simply get together for a walk or jog after work, having someone to work out with can help you stay motivated — plus it's a great way to bond!
The NIH's Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart says that the best way to find out whether any physical activity is improving the fitness of your heart and lungs is by tracking your heart rate when you exercise. According to the guide, your target heart rate should be between 50 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate, which changes as you age. Over 75 percent may be too strenuous except for those in tip-top shape, while less than 50 percent is not enough to sufficiently condition your heart and lungs.
Regular physical activity isn't just great for the waistline. It also lowers your risk of heart disease. But you don't have to hit the gym or start training for a marathon to get into better shape. Start simple, by spending some more time being active with the people — or pets — you love!
A pedometer is a small device you attach to a belt or carry in your pocket that keeps track of how many steps you take a day. Get more active by keeping track of your step count and then trying to get that number up to about 10,000 steps (or roughly 5 miles) a day. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from the entrance to the grocery store are easy ways to up your step count!
Studies have repeatedly linked excess stress with heart disease. What better way to battle stress than by taking the time to just sit still and focus on your breathing? Some other benefits of meditation include better mood, memory, concentration and even reduced pain when it is practiced long-term.
In an age when more and more Americans are overworked, learning to say "no" and to be realistic about one's capabilities is more important than ever. Make sure to keep time in your schedule to relax and de-stress. Your heart will love you for it.
Eirish Sison is a health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Published March 6, 2012.