Not all signs of an impending heart attack are obvious and the subtle signs which go unnoticed can still result in a deadly outcome, adding to the tragic statistic that makes coronary heart disease (CHD) the leading cause of death for men and women in America. Numbers don’t lie, and they’re staggering: Every 34 seconds, an American succumbs to coronary heart disease — that’s 2,000 lives a day. (1) Some knew they had unhealthy hearts. Some didn’t recognize the early warning signs. CHD is the number one killer of both men and women in the US.
Here are 10 tips to reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
1. Know Your Risks for Coronary Heart Disease
There are several major risk factors which lead to coronary artery disease or heart attacks that can be controlled. Those risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high sugar levels or diabetes, smoking, lack of physical activity, unhealthy diet and stress. Those that cannot be controlled (conventional) are: Age (simply getting older increases risk); sex (men are generally at greater risk of coronary artery disease); family history; and race.(2)
Although men are at higher risk than women of coronary artery disease, it is still the leading cause of death among women. Among women, only 54% were aware of this in 2009. Cardiovascular disease caused approximately 1 in 3 female deaths. (3)
2. Recognize Early Signs of Coronary Heart Disease
Make sure you recognize signs of heart disease such as shortness of breath, discomfort and tightness in chest, neck, or jaws or the back, indigestion can sometimes be a sign of coronary heart disease. Be even more wary of these signs when they come with exertion! If you notice these signs, consult your doctor immediately.
Coronary artery disease symptoms may be different for men and women. For instance, men are more likely to have chest pain. Women are more likely to have other symptoms along with chest discomfort, such as shortness of breath, nausea and extreme fatigue.
3. Maintain Healthy Weight
Being very overweight puts you at risk for heart disease even if you seem otherwise healthy—that is, even if you don’t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Chiadi Ndumele, M.D. New research shows that it’s unwise to be lulled into a false sense of security about your heart health if you don’t have the more obvious signs of problems. “Obesity itself can be causing silent damage to your heart muscle,” he says. (4)
Eating right and keeping a check on your weight will help you lower heart disease risk. A waist circumference of more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches in men is more likely to be associated with heart disease. Cutting out sugary sweet or high calorie drinks can save you many calories a day and help you lose weight.
4. Watch Your Diet
Avoiding excess calories is an integral part of halting the development of cardiovascular disease risk factors. Unfavorable eating patterns are driven by a variety of social, economic, and psychological factors. Diet and other lifestyle changes remain crucial steps in primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, although the relative importance of medication and clinical procedures increases over time with disease progression
Try to have a balanced diet. Add more fruit and vegetables, whole grain bread, pasta and rice. Lower amount of salt in your diet. Avoid fatty foods particularly trans fats which are found in processed foods. Avoid ingredient lists that have hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats which are trans fats. Start the day with some fruit and a serving of whole grains like oatmeal. Have a handful of nuts few times a week. Choose lean cuts and reduced fat options. Add whole plant-based foods.
Research shows that some dietary supplements may help lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and other things that put you at risk for heart disease. It’s unclear, though, if they help prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems. Check out our breakdown of the top heart health supplements.
5. Lower Your Cholesterol Levels
Higher levels of cholesterol lead to fatty deposits in your heart and brain arteries that lead to heart attacks and stroke. You can lower your cholesterol levels by exercising and eating right. Try to avoid fatty foods. Reduce your cholesterol by limiting butter, red meat, bakery products and fried foods.
6. Lower Your Blood Pressure Levels
The higher the blood pressure, the shorter the life expectancy. People with higher blood pressure run the risk of heart attacks and strokes. High blood pressure damages arteries that can become blocked and prevent blood flow to the heart muscle. (5) People should aim for a blood pressure of less than 130 mmHg systolic (top number) and less than 80 mmHg diastolic pressure (bottom number). Remember 120/80 as a target blood pressure.
Most of the time, high blood pressure does not cause any symptoms. For this reason, high blood pressure can be a “silent killer.” The only way to check blood pressure is by monitoring it.
7. Stop Smoking
Smoking is one of the strongest risk factors for developing coronary heart disease. A smoker is twice as likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker. According to the AHA, stopping smoking reduces the risk for heart disease, the risk for repeat heart attacks, and death by heart disease by half. (6) Research also shows that quitting smoking is key in the management of many contributors to heart attack. These include atherosclerosis, blood clots and abnormal heart rhythms. There are many ways to quit smoking, talk to your doctor. E-cigarette’s are no replacement, so avoid!
8. Exercise More
Getting regular exercise when you have heart disease is important. Physical activity can strengthen your heart muscle and help you manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And an exercise program does not need to be rigorous. Try to walk 10-15 minutes daily. It’s ideal to exercise 30 minutes 4-5 times a week! You don’t have to over-exert yourself. Brisk walking or light jogging is great for this purpose.
Only about 22 percent of Americans report regular sustained physical activity (activity of any intensity lasting 30 minutes or more 5 times a week). Fifteen percent of Americans report vigorous activity (activity intense enough to make the heart beat fast and hard breathing for at least 20 minutes or more 3 times a week). Thus, improvements in physical activity can be gained in all segments of society. (7)
9. Stress Less
Ongoing stress not only takes an emotional and psychological toll, it can produce physical symptoms. Those may include headaches, an upset stomach, tense and aching muscles, insomnia and low energy. Heart disease is another potential stress-related problem. (8)
Lower your stress levels. High stress leads to more smoking and drinking and increases your risk of heart attacks. To reduce your stress and anxiety level, try activities that reduce stress like yoga, walking meditation, traditional meditation, guided imagery, or other methods. Studies show that stress at work can also impact heart health. If your job causes stress you may want to consider a career change.
10. Get A Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep has a big impact on heart health. Studies show short sleep duration or poor sleep quality, is associated with high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and atherosclerosis. And habitual short sleep increases the chance of cardiovascular events. (9) You need 6 to 7 hours of sleep a night to give your body the break it needs to function efficiently and lower your risk of developing heart disease and blood pressure. Make sure you take time to rest.
Cardiovascular disease can be worrying but the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases now. Follow these steps to implement plans to live a heart healthy life.
(1) Heart Disease in the United States
(2) Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease: Historical Perspectives
(3) Risk Factors For Coronary Artery Disease
(4) Weight: A Silent Heart Risk
(5) High blood pressure threatens your health and quality of life
(6) Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease
(7) Physical Inactivity and Cardiovascular Disease
(8) Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease
(9) Sleep plays an important role in heart health
Waqar Khan, MD, MPH, is a board-certified interventional cardiologist who has helped thousands of patients overcome CHD and improve their heart health during his 20-plus years in private practice. A fellow of the American College of Cardiology, he is in private practice in suburban Houston, Texas, and is an affiliate faculty member in cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine. He is the author of Be Heart Smart.