Whether you're at high risk for heart trouble or you're trying to control early-stage heart disease, here are some simple lifestyle changes you can make.
Simple lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of heart disease. If you're at high risk or you're trying to control early-stage heart disease, here are some important preventive steps -- involving diet, exercise, medical options, supplements and lifestyle -- you can take.
Think international. People who eat a traditional Mediterranean or Asian diet appear to have lower rates of heart disease than those who eat a typical American diet. Incorporate elements of these diets into your healthy eating plan.
Eat heart-smart foods. Choose foods that can reduce cholesterol and improve heart health, such as fruits (apples, avocados, dried fruits, grapefruit, oranges, strawberries), vegetables (broccoli, carrots, corn, lima beans, onions), seafood (clams, mussels, oysters), fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (salmon and bluefish), soy, nuts and whole-grain breads and cereals.
Cut the fat. To keep your cholesterol level down, limit the amount of fat you eat, especially saturated fat. Your total fat intake should be no more than 30% of your daily calories. Focus on low-fat alternatives to red meat, such as fish or skinless chicken or turkey. Eating fish several times a week can cut your risk of heart attack by as much as half. Lower your intake of dairy fats by switching to low-fat or skim varieties. Or try soy milk -- soy protein can lower cholesterol.
Spice it up. If you have high blood pressure, cut your sodium intake. In fact, researchers now think that even people whose blood pressure is within normal range should cut back on sodium. Avoid processed foods, which contain a lot of sodium, and ease up on salt at mealtime. But don't settle for bland fare. Add flavor with salsa, curry, peppers, or garlic. Eating one to three cloves of garlic a day has been shown to reduce blood pressure and possibly lower cholesterol.
Add rough stuff. Soluble fiber -- plentiful in fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains -- prevents arterial plaque buildup. Studies show that eating three or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by 25% or more. In one study, eating cooked dried beans daily lowered LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, by 20% in just three weeks. Other research showed that a diet high in whole grains can cut a woman's risk of dying from heart disease by up to 15%. And dozens of studies confirm that eating oats has a cholesterol-lowering effect.
Seeing red. Drinking alcohol in moderation raises HDL, or "good," cholesterol and "thins" the blood, reducing the likelihood of clots that can cause heart attack and stroke. Red wine offers additional benefits. Its dark pigments are rich in bioflavonoids that prevent the oxidation of LDL, making it less likely to stick to artery walls. Research showed that people who drank two 8-ounce glasses of red wine a day were 40% less likely to have a heart attack than those who didn't imbibe. But don't overdo it -- too much alcohol raises your triglyceride level (and high triglyceride levels are linked to coronary artery disease and untreated diabetes in some people). And if you have an alcohol problem, the harm far outweighs any potential benefit. Other good sources of bioflavonoids: black and green tea, onions, kale and apples.
Work your heart. The best preventive medicine for your heart is aerobic exercise. It reduces high blood pressure and atherosclerosis by widening the blood vessels. Plus, it raises "good" cholesterol levels. Choose an activity that works the large muscles of your legs and buttocks (like brisk walking or bicycling), and strive to reach your target heart rate for at least 15 to 20 minutes, three or four times a week.
An (up)lifting idea. An American Heart Association (AHA) survey found that lifting weights a few times a week can improve heart health in some people. That's because stronger muscles can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Having more muscle tissue also raises your metabolism, which helps control your weight. But don't skip the brisk walk. The AHA recommends pumping iron in addition to aerobic exercise.
Be flexible. Flexibility exercises like yoga not only help keep your joints limber but also help cut the production of stress hormones that can contribute to heart disease.
Evaluate Your Heart Health
Schedule a checkup. Until age 65, you should have your blood pressure checked at least every other year. At age 65, you should have it checked at least annually. Most doctors also recommend a yearly cholesterol screening if you have high cholesterol or other heart-disease risk factors. Your doctor may also recommend electrocardiography (an ECG) to evaluate your heart health. While you're there, ask about a simple blood test for a substance called C-reactive protein. According to Harvard researchers studying 28,000 healthy women, this test helped predict heart attack risk better than cholesterol tests.
An aspirin a day? People with existing heart disease may benefit from low-dose aspirin therapy, which may prevent heart attacks. The dosage ranges from part of an aspirin (80 mg) to one aspirin (325 mg) daily. Ask your doctor what's right for you.
Depressurize. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease. If diet and exercise can't control it, blood-pressure medication can help.
Deal with diabetes. People with diabetes, most of whom are adults with the type 2 form of the disease, are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or stroke. Controlling the disease is often just a matter of losing extra pounds, exercising regularly and following a heart-healthy diet.
Don't ignore depression. One study found that depressed people were 1.7 times more likely to develop heart disease and that depressed men were nearly three times as likely to die from it. See your doctor for help.
Consider folate and vitamin B6. These vitamins lower elevated levels of homocysteine, a substance in the blood that may raise your risk of heart disease. A daily intake of more than 400 mcg of folate and 3 mg of B6 appears to reduce the risk of heart disease in women.
Go fish. Fish oil capsules contain omega-3 fatty acids, which act as anticlotting agents. Check with your doctor before taking them to avoid interactions with other medications.
Get garlic. Garlic capsules offer the health benefits of garlic without odor. Choose pills that supply 4000 mcg of allicin and take 400 to 600 mg a day.
Rein in your rage. Don't get mad -- it's bad for your heart. A study of nearly 13,000 people found that those who were quick to anger were almost three times more likely to have heart attacks than their cooler-headed peers.
Stay trim. Being even slightly overweight can increase your blood pressure and put you at greater risk for heart disease. Follow a heart-smart diet and make exercise a priority.
No ifs, ands, or butts. According to the American Heart Association, you can cut your risk of death related to heart disease by 50% by kicking the smoking habit. After three smoke-free years, your risk of heart disease is the same as that of a lifelong nonsmoker.
Time out. Minimize stress, a risk factor for heart disease. Try meditation or visualization or yoga. Prayer may also help. Take brisk walks with a friend; your conversation may add extra stress relief.
Getting away is good for your heart. Researchers found that men between ages 35 and 57 who took a yearly vacation were one-third less likely to die from heart disease than their stay-at-work colleagues.