Heart disease is one of the most common diseases in the United States, plaguing 28 million Americans with conditions like heart failure, coronary artery disease and congenital heart disease.
One of the most common misconceptions about being at risk for heart disease is that it’s purely a disease of old age — but in reality, the sooner you start thinking about your heart health, the better. At the same time, it’s fairly normal to think that having a family history means resigning yourself to life with heart disease. Though family history does increase your risk, you can make lifestyle changes that significantly lower it.
Basically, your future isn’t set in stone either way. The lifestyle choices you make today can have a long-term effect on your heart health, which means if you’re at risk for heart disease, it’s in your power to get your heart health back on track.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
The first step to understanding your risk is learning the difference between modifiable and nonmodifiable risk factors. Nonmodifiable heart disease risk factors are things you can’t control — think your family history, age and gender. Most cases of coronary heart disease occur in people age 65 and older. Men also have a greater risk of heart attacks than women and tend to have them earlier in life.
But some risk factors are modifiable, giving you the ability to chart the course of your own health. These include:
- Smoking. Smoking leads to buildup in the arteries that causes clots to block blood flow.
- High cholesterol. High cholesterol — especially low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol, what’s commonly known as bad cholesterol — raises the risk of heart disease. It comes down to clots once again: A diet high in saturated and trans fats is great at clogging arteries.
- High blood pressure. High blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body, which thickens and stiffens the heart muscles.
- Obesity. Being overweight or obese is often connected to other heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Obesity can also cause changes to the structure and function of the heart (and not in a good way).
- Diabetes. High glucose levels increase heart disease risk by damaging the heart’s blood vessels and nerves, impairing its function.
- Diet and exercise. Eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly can help you control other heart disease risk factors like obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
How to Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk
The best way to control your heart disease risk is to not stress about what you can’t control and focus on what you can. Start with these four steps.
- Quit smoking. Quitting immediately begins to improve your heart health and reduce your risk, experts say. It’s one of the most difficult changes to make, but it’s also one that makes a big difference.
- Hit the gym. National exercise guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of exercise every week. Break this up into moderate exercise four to five times a week or vigorous exercise at least two times a week.
- Improve your diet. Eating a heart-healthy diet can significantly reduce your risk and help control risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. A heart-healthy diet is filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. If you’re struggling to come up with an eating plan, asking your doctor and following the government’s 2015-2020 dietary guidelines are good places to start.
- Control your stress. Stress, anxiety and depression impact your overall health, but your heart is one of the first victims. Experts believe that’s because these conditions cause biochemical changes in the body that contribute to various health issues. If a bad day is making you tear your hair out, stress management should be your goal — whether you’re tackling stress at the source, trying out mindfulness, learning coping strategies from a mental health professional or getting a prescription for medication. Paying attention to this mind-body connection may be another way to improve your heart health.
Getting Heart Healthy
With heart disease, adopting healthy habits early — and consistently — can make all the difference. But no matter how old you are, it’s also never too late to make a lifestyle change that will improve your health.
Even if you have a family history of heart disease, don’t take that heart disease risk sitting down — work with your doctor to eat better, be more active, get on medication and reduce your risk. You have an incredible number of options to be proactive about your heart health. In so many ways, your health is in your hands. Make sure you take care of it.