Heart disease is a big problem that can often be avoided with small actions.
While heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths, it can be prevented—unlike many other illnesses.
UNC Health cardiologist Ashley Lewis, MD, offers 10 ways to boost your heart health.
1. Know your blood pressure.
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. Get your blood pressure checked at least once a year—more often if you have high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, take steps to reduce it.
2. Keep your cholesterol under control.
High levels of cholesterol can clog your arteries and raise your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack.
3. Don’t smoke.
Cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure and increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. If you smoke, quitting will lower your risk of heart disease.
4. Practice moderation when it comes to food and drink.
Eating a diet high in saturated or trans fats (found in red meat, fried foods and baked goods) is linked to heart disease, and too much salt and alcohol can raise your blood pressure, which also taxes your heart. Chronically elevated blood pressure means your heart has to work harder than it should to circulate blood throughout your body.
“The Mediterranean diet is the one that is most recommended at preventing heart disease. It includes whole grains, beans, green leafy vegetables, fruits, lower amounts of red meat and low-fat dairy,” Dr. Lewis says.
5. Exercise regularly.
Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (walking, biking, swimming, dancing) each week. If you’re doing high-intensity exercise such as running or a spinning class, aim for 75 minutes a week.
6. Watch your weight.
Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease. Weight loss can help reduce blood pressure, among other benefits. “One pound of weight brings your blood pressure down one point,” Dr. Lewis says. “Ten pounds of weight loss and your blood pressure is down 10 points.”
7. Manage stress.
High stress levels elevate your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. These elevated levels can, in turn, trigger a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack. Manage stress with healthy coping skills such as meditation, deep breathing, writing in a journal, talking on the phone with supportive loved ones, and spending time with your family and pets.
8. Get your annual flu shot.
Influenza (the seasonal flu) has been linked to increased heart attacks and strokes. Get your flu vaccination to reduce your risk of getting the flu, and to reduce your risk of having a severe infection if you do get the flu.
9. Get enough sleep.
Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you don’t get enough sleep, it can increase your risk of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes—all of which can raise your risk of heart disease.
10. See your primary care provider.
Your primary care provider’s main goal is to help you stay healthy. One of the ways they do this is by looking at your risk factors for various diseases, including heart disease. If your primary care provider determines you have a moderate or high risk, they may prescribe medications and recommend lifestyle changes that can lower your risk and improve your chances of preventing heart disease.
If you experience shortness of breath or chest discomfort, especially with activity, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department to rule out a heart problem.