Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide – accounting for more than 17.3 million deaths per year – according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
It might seem impossible or pointless to try to avoid it, given how many people die from heart disease each year. But that’s just not the case. There are steps you can and should take to improve your heart health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
What is heart disease?
There are several different types of heart disease, but coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common.
CAD occurs when fats, cholesterol and calcium build up on the vessel walls that supply blood to the heart muscle. As the build-up thickens, the vessels become narrower, making it difficult for blood to flow to the heart muscle. This can lead to a heart attack, heart failure or even death.
Am I at risk for heart disease?
There are two types of risk factors for heart disease: the ones you can’t change (non-modifiable) and the ones you can (modifiable).
Age, gender, family history, race and menopause are non-modifiable risk factors – there’s nothing you can do about those. For example, men older than 45 and women older than 55 (or who have had their ovaries removed) have the age risk factor.
But there are some risk factors you can do something about. Weight, nutrition, physical activity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, low HDL (good cholesterol) and high LDL (bad cholesterol) are all modifiable risk factors.
How to avoid heart disease
The heart wants what it wants… to be healthy! Once you’ve determined your risk factors, the work begins to keep them as low as possible. Follow these six steps to achieve a healthier heart and lower your risk for heart disease:
Do some aerobic exercise – like walking, cycling, jogging and swimming – to get the blood pumping. You’ll want to aim for at least two and a half hours each week. Add in some strength training for your major muscle groups two days a week.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
Try to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains in your diet. A healthy diet should include foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, sugar and salt. Also, limiting your total calories to a reasonable amount is important.
Maintain a healthy weight
Everyone’s body is different. A healthy weight for one person may not be healthy for another person. One thing is certain: too much weight can increase your risk of heart disease. Eating healthy and exercising can remove obesity as a risk factor.
Cut out tobacco
Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit. Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Non-smokers should also avoid second-hand smoke.
Drink in moderation
Limit your alcohol to a moderate level. This means two or fewer drinks per day for men and one for women. One drink equals a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Keep an eye on other medical conditions
This is especially important if you have:
- High cholesterol - Exercise raises your HDL (good) cholesterol level. Decreasing your intake of saturated fat lowers your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Changes in both numbers helps make you healthier overall. If you are prescribed a statin and your cholesterol numbers improve, this does not mean that you should be sedentary and eat whatever you want – you’ll still need to focus on other controllable risk factors.
- High blood pressure - If you have high blood pressure, work to get it under control. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not drinking alcohol are just some ways to help control your blood pressure. Some people will also need to take medication.
- Diabetes - Eating well, exercising and taking medication can help keep diabetes under control.