Preventing Heart Disease With Heart-Healthy Habits

Did you know one person passes away from heart disease every 34 seconds? Both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG) have named heart disease (cardiovascular disease) as the leading cause of illness and death in the United States. In fact, roughly 670,000 people passed away from heart disease in 2020 alone. 

Although there can be a genetic predisposition, there are things you can implement in your everyday life to help prevent and limit the effects of heart disease. Let’s start by reviewing what heart disease is and what typically causes this life-threatening condition.

What Is Heart Disease?

Simply put, the term “heart disease” refers to several different types of heart conditions. One example is coronary artery disease, also referred to as CAD. which affects blood flow to the heart. CAD is the most common type of heart disease, but other types include but aren’t limited to: 

  • Cardiomyopathy (Heart Muscle Disease)
  • Congenital Heart Disease
  • Heart Valve Disease
  • Pericardial Disease

Symptoms that can indicate heart disease include heart attacks, arrhythmias, heart failure, chest pain (including pressure or discomfort), shortness of breath, pain in the neck or jaw, numbness, weakness, or coldness in the legs or arms. 

Heart disease may also act “silent” for a period of time. It is not uncommon for a person to be unaware that they have heart disease until they experience symptoms of a heart attack or heart failure. 

What Are The Risk Factors for Heart Disease? 

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are all significant risk factors for heart disease. According to the CDC, roughly 47% of people in the United States have one or more of these three risk factors. That said, heart disease can be triggered by several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices:

  • Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Abuse 
  • A Sedentary or Inactive Routine 
  • An Unbalanced/Unhealthy Diet 
  • Congenital Heart Defects
  • Diabetes 
  • Family History
  • Secondhand Smoke Exposure 
  • Obesity 

In addition, it should be noted that while heart disease can occur at any point in a person’s life, it becomes more of a risk as you age

What Can Be Done To Prevent Heart Disease? 

While some risk factors can not be helped or changed, creating a lifestyle full of heart-healthy habits can go a long way toward prevention. Heart-healthy habits help keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels balanced, lowering your risk of heart disease. Consider implementing the following practices when looking to lower your chances of getting heart disease.

Eliminate Smoking 

Eliminating the use of tobacco is one of the best things you can do not only for your heart but for your overall health. The act of smoking can cause our blood to become viscid, making it more likely to clot. These clots can block blood flow throughout the body including to the heart and brain. Smoking also: 

  • Causes blood vessels to thicken and narrow
  • Damages the cells that line blood vessels 
  • Increases the building up of plaque in blood vessels 
  • Raises triglycerides 
  • Lowers HDL (good cholesterol) 
  • and more

This are just some of the potential issues. Smoking and tobacco use can also lead to increased blood pressure and heart complications. In fact, secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and leads to over 30,000 early deaths each year

Regardless of how long you have been a smoker, quitting can only benefit you. According to the Mayo Clinic, your risk of heart disease may start  to drop in as little as a day after quitting, and after a year, your risk is cut in half compared to that of a current smoker. 

Limit the Use of Alcohol

Although it has been rumored that alcohol can be good for your heart, this idea isn’t fully backed by science. A few studies have linked moderate alcohol consumption to a lower risk of heart disease, but it is difficult to determine the cause and effect within those studies.

On the other hand, heavy alcohol usage has been proven to cause a wide range of negative health issues including high blood pressure, weight gain, stroke, arrhythmias, and cancer (most of which can lead to heart disease). Chronic consumption of alcohol (especially in excess) can lead to alcoholic cardiomyopathy where your heart muscles weaken. In fact, doctors often recommend avoiding alcohol for those who already have heart conditions or a history of heart failure.

According to the CDC, excessive drinking typically looks like four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on any one single occasion. Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men. If your habits align with either of the above, health experts encourage you to speak with your doctor for more information about alcohol abuse and that you begin to limit your consuption of alcohol in general. 

Incorporate Daily Exercise 

A sedentary lifestyle is one of the top five risk factors for heart disease. Remember that just like any other muscle, the heart needs regular exercise. Research shows that consistent exercise is another one of the top ways to prevent heart disease, and that exercise can actually reverse some of the risk factors when paired with a heart-healthy diet. Routine physical activity can:

  • Help balance cholesterol levels
  • Improve your muscle’s ability to pull oxygen out of your blood
  • Increase your sensitivity to insulin 
  • Lower your blood pressure and heart rate 
  • Lower your risk of diabetes
  • Help you maintain a healthy body weight
  • Reduce inflammation throughout the body 
  • Reduce stress

These are just some of the potential advantages of exercise that can lower your chances of heart disease by lowering how hard your heart has to work overall. Incorporating thirty minutes to an hour of exercise into your daily routine, or at least most days of the week, can dramatically reduce your risk. 

Eat A Heart-Healthy Diet 

Exercising and eating a heart-healthy diet work in tandem to lower your overall risk of heart disease. Healthy foods work to protect your heart, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol regulated, reduce your risk of diabetes and help you maintain a healthy overall weight; all contributing towards a happy healthy heart. While diet requirements may vary for some depending on their current health status and allergies, in general, a heart-healthy diet consists of: 

  • Beans and other legumes
  • Healthy fats
  • Fruits
  • Lean meats and fish 
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables

In addition, it is important to limit the intake of: 

  • Alcohol 
  • Salt 
  • Sugar 
  • Processed carbohydrates 
  • Saturated fat (think rd meat and full-fat dairy products)
  • Trans fat (think fried food and baked goods)

Make High-Quality Sleep A Priority 

A minimum seven hours of sleep is needed for the average adult person per night. Those who consistently do not get enough high-quality sleep are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease. It’s important to set a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. In addition, your bedroom should be dark, cool, and quiet with white noise playing if needed (so long as it’s not distracting). 

If you find that you are sleeping the recommended amount of hours and still feel consistently tired throughout the day, talk to your doctor to see if you should be evaluated for any sleep disorders. For example, obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that can lead to heart disease. Those with this condition stop breathing for short periods of time during sleep, which jolts them awake. A person with obstructive sleep apnea may not be aware that they are waking up in the night, falling back asleep, and repeating the cycle. 

Making high-quality sleep a priority will lower your overall chances of developing heart disease, as well as improve brain function, and help keep weight under control. 

Get Regular Health Screenings

In addition to practicing habits that aim to keep our bodies happy, healthy and regulated, it is also important to schedule regular health screenings in order to monitor changes in our bodies. This allows us to know when it is time to take further action.

The following are recommended health screenings timeframes that if followed, can help prevent/limit the effects of heart disease. 

Test: Starting Age: Frequency: 
Blood Pressure Screening 18 Every 2 Years 
Cholesterol Levels 20 Every 4-6 years 
Type 2 Diabetes Screening 45 Every 3 years 

If you are showing signs of heart disease, your doctor may recommend several tests for diagnosis. Often, these tests will include an exercise test with or without imaging studies, an echocardiogram, a nuclear scan for function or perfusion, an electrocardiogram (EKG), and a cardiac CT among others. If diagnosed, your doctor can provide more information about managing and limiting the effects of heart disease. 

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed, incorporating these heart-healthy habits can help to reverse certain types of heart disease, as well as keep symptoms under control.