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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for one in every five fatalities nationwide. Taking charge of your heart health is a worthwhile and crucial investment in your health—but how, exactly, can you rein in your risk factors before it’s too late to make a meaningful change?
Experts say following a few simple, everyday health habits can put you on the path to better heart health in no time. Read on to learn seven of their best tips for keeping your heart healthy as you get older.
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Follow a heart-healthy diet
As with many other aspects of your health, good heart health begins with a proper diet. “Consuming a healthy diet means emphasizing whole grains, plant-based protein, beans, vegetables and fruit,” says Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“It also means limiting refined carbohydrates, sweetened beverages, processed meats, tropical oils and full fat dairy,” he tells Best Life. Additionally, minimizing your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium are all beneficial.
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Get regular exercise
Staying active is another great way to promote heart health into your senior years. The American Heart Association recommends getting a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.
Experts from Johns Hopkins Medicine suggest incorporating two additional types of exercise, in addition to aerobic exercise: resistance training and flexibility training. Resistance training can improve body composition in ways that are beneficial to heart health by reducing fat and increasing lean muscle mass, they note. And flexibility training, which can include stretching and balancing exercises, provides a “good musculoskeletal foundation that enables you to do the exercises that help your heart,” Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D. writes.
Manage your underlying health conditions
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several underlying conditions can greatly increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. These include hypertension, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes.
By knowing your numbers and keeping them in a healthy range, you can greatly reduce your chances of suffering a serious heart episode later in life. Speak with your doctor to learn about lifestyle interventions or medications that may help.
Though roughly one third of Americans report not getting enough sleep, the CDC points out that a good night’s rest is essential to your cardiovascular health.
“Getting good sleep isn’t just important for your energy levels—it’s critical for your heart health, too.” They note that regularly getting less than seven hours of sleep per night is associated with heightened risk of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity, which in turn can raise your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
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It’s not just your lungs that suffer when you smoke cigarettes—your heart is also in harm’s way.
“The toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke can interfere with important processes in your body that keep it functioning normally. One of these processes is the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to your heart and the rest of your body,” explains the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen and deliver it to your heart, which pumps this oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body through the blood vessels. But when you breathe in cigarette smoke, the blood that is distributed to the rest of the body becomes contaminated with the smoke’s chemicals.”
The CDC adds that one in every four deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) is attributed to smoking. The good news? Twenty minutes after you quit smoking, your heart rate drops, the FDA says.
Limit your alcohol intake
Like tobacco products, alcohol can also damage the heart over time, so it’s best to limit your intake to the recommended amounts.
“Moderate drinking is defined as an average of one drink per day for women and one or two for men. A drink might be less than you think: 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits,” experts from Johns Hopkins write. “Some people should avoid even that much and not drink at all if they have certain heart rhythm abnormalities or have heart failure.”
We all feel stress at times, but experts say prolonged, unchecked stress can wreak havoc on your heart health. “A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise,” explains the American Heart Association.
Besides these acute effects on the heart, stress can lead to certain health behaviors that can increase your risk of heart disease. These include eating unhealthily, neglecting exercise, smoking, not taking medications as prescribed, and more. Speak with your doctor or a licensed mental health professional if you believe your stress level may be interfering with your health.