Despite advances in the treatment of heart disease, it remains the No. 1 cause of death in America. “But there are things you can do to reduce your risk, and it’s never too early,” according to Owais Idris, M.D., an interventional cardiologist with HeartPlace and the co-medical director of the cardiac catherization lab at Texas Health Frisco and interventional cardiologist on the medical staffs of Texas Health Frisco and UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Here are some ways to stay heart healthy at any age:
Eat a Healthy Diet
Moderation is the key to a healthy diet, Dr. Idris notes. In general, he recommends avoiding fried foods and not eating too much red meat, which can cause inflammation. “Inflammation starts the process of atherosclerosis and speeds it up,” Dr. Idris says, referring to plaque buildup in blood vessels.
Instead, he recommends eating plenty of antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and berries. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that adults eat two and a half cups of vegetables per day and two cups of fruit per day, based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
Consuming fiber-rich whole grains such as oatmeal is also important. At least half of your grain intake per day should be from whole grains. “An increased fiber diet can help get rid of dietary cholesterol,” Dr. Idris explains.
Get Your Heart Pumping
Taking a stroll around the block has many health benefits. But to maximize heart health, you need to do something that gets your heart rate up to between 70 percent and 85 percent of your maximum predicted heart rate. “We want you to get into that cardio zone,” Dr. Idris says, noting that the aim should be to reach your target heart rate for at least 30 minutes five times per week. It is very important to listen to your body, so if you have any symptoms that occur during exercise or otherwise, you should stop right away and if the symptoms persist, seek emergent medical attention.
To calculate your maximum predicted heart rate, subtract your age from 220. If you’re 40 years old, your maximum predicted heart rate is 180, so you need to get your heart rate up to between 126 and 153 beats per minute. “Otherwise, you’re not really doing exercise from a cardiac standpoint,” Dr. Idris adds. “All exercise is not created equal.”
Smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease worldwide. It causes inflammation and can make it easier for blood clots to form. Smoking doubles your risk of having a stroke. Smokers are also up to four times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers.
“Smoking is very, very bad, regardless of your age,” Dr. Idris emphasizes. “The damage that you're doing now you may be paying for, for years to come.”
The good news is that quitting smoking can add up to 10 years to your life expectancy – one of the many health benefits. If you need help kicking the habit, you can get free confidential coaching by calling 1-800-QUIT-Now.
Maintain a Healthy BMI and Blood Glucose Levels
Maintaining a healthy BMI or body mass index can keep your heart healthy. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is a healthy weight. A BMI over 30 indicates obesity. Being obese is particularly hard on the heart, says Dr. Idris. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers an online BMI calculator to help put things in perspective.
In addition, obesity and type 2 diabetes often go hand in hand. If you have type 2 diabetes, your body doesn’t respond normally to insulin, causing your blood sugar to rise. High blood sugar can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease. In fact, people with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or stroke, and they are also more likely to have heart failure.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advises that people between the ages of 35 and 70 who are overweight or obese be screened for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Making healthy lifestyle changes and taking prescribed medications can help to lower your blood sugar and the chance of developing heart disease.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Poor sleep habits also cause inflammation, which can have a number of negative effects on your body. “Sleep deprivation has been linked to Alzheimer's, heart disease, organ failure and many other significant health issues,” Dr. Idris says.
In addition, he points out that people with sleep apnea have an increased risk for atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias. The American Heart Association recommends that adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
To help get a good night’s sleep, the CDC offers these tips:
- Hit the sheets at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning.
- Sleep in a dark room set at a comfortable temperature.
- Remove TVs, cell phones and other electronic devices from the bedroom.
- Avoid large meals, alcohol and caffeine before bedtime.
- Exercise during the day. Getting enough physical activity makes it easier to fall asleep at night.
Know Your Family History
Poor dietary habits can lead to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, but some heart conditions are genetic. If that’s the case, “Even if you eat grass, you could still have elevated risks for cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Idris admits.
That’s why it’s important to know your family history. When collecting your family medical history, include information about your parents, siblings, children, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews on both sides of the family. Learn tips on documenting your family history here. And to help you organize your family history information, download this family tree, print, fill out and share with your healthcare provider.
Note which relatives have had heart conditions and how old they were when they were diagnosed. Also list the age and cause of death for family members who have died. Share this information with your health care team and family members.
Regardless of your family history, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults 18 and older be screened for high blood pressure. Whether caused by genetics or lifestyle, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can be treated with medication and/or healthy lifestyle changes to help keep your heart healthy.
Communicate with Your Health Care Team
Dr. Idris asks his patients to be brutally honest with him, so he knows the best way to help them. He says it’s especially important to be upfront about:
- Alcohol, nicotine and drug use
- Family history of heart disease
- Diet, exercise and sleep habits
- Stress levels
“We’re in a professional environment and we've all made mistakes, so I tell my patients that the more open you are with me, the more I can be of help to you.”
This article was developed by the American Heart Association for Texas Health.