Here’s a sobering stat: heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The good news? You can take actionable steps to improve your heart health and lower your chances of developing heart disease.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is an umbrella term for many different conditions, some that you can be born with (congenital heart diseases) and some that develop over the course of your life due to age and other lifestyle factors.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the most common heart disease type is coronary artery disease (CAD). This type of heart disease is marked by the buildup of plaque and cholesterol in the arteries that supply the heart with blood. Plaque blocks blood flow and can set the stage for crushing chest pain (angina), heart attacks, irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and heart failure.
Other heart disease types may impact the valves of the heart or the heart muscle itself.
How to prevent heart disease
The central tenets of heart disease prevention include:
- Eating a heart-healthy diet
- Getting regular exercise
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking
- Abstaining from alcohol or only drinking alcohol in moderation
A heart-healthy lifestyle helps address certain risk factors for heart disease, including:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol levels
- High levels of unhealthy blood fats called triglycerides
- Being overweight or obese
When heart disease prevention efforts aren’t enough, heart medications are also available to help manage your heart health.
What’s involved in a heart-healthy lifestyle?
Here’s where to start if you’re looking to put some of these heart disease prevention tips into action:
Update your diet
One of the cornerstones of heart disease prevention is to eat a heart-healthy diet, but what exactly does that include?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a heart-healthy diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein, which are found in foods such as:
- Skinless poultry
- Whole wheat bread
- Lean meats
It also includes healthy, non-artery-clogging fats like avocado and certain oils (such as olive, avocado, peanut, safflower, sesame and canola oils).
Another aspect of a heart-healthy diet is inflammation-fighting foods. More research is needed on its exact role in heart disease, but inflammation is commonly found in those with heart disease, according to the AHA. Omega-3 fatty acids — a type of healthy fats — help fight back against inflammation.
Fatty or oily fish are solid sources of omega-3s, so adding fish to your weekly meal planning is important. The AHA recommends eating at least 8 ounces of non-fried fish per week. Some omega-3-rich fish options include:
- Albacore tuna
- Lake trout
Don’t like fish? Don’t worry: edamame, walnuts and ground flaxseed are also good sources of omega-3s.
Avoiding unhealthy foods is another key part of a heart-healthy diet. This means steering clear of processed foods and added sugars when and where possible.
It’s also smart to rein in your sodium intake. We get most of our sodium from packaged and prepared foods, not the saltshaker, so you may be taking in more sodium than you realize. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily to help maintain a normal blood pressure. This is roughly equivalent to 1 teaspoon of salt.
If possible, an even better goal — especially for those with hypertension (high blood pressure) — is to cut back to no more than 1,500 mg of sodium daily, the AHA says.
Watch your alcohol consumption
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, which is defined as no more than 2 drinks per day if you’re a man and no more than 1 drink per day if you’re a woman, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Keep portions in mind: one drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
The AHA notes that consuming alcohol in moderation may help raise “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and lower your diabetes risk, but these benefits go out the window when you overdo it. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, increase the risk of stroke and promote irregular heartbeats.
Make exercise a priority
Regular physical activity may help reduce blood pressure, lower diabetes risk, keep your weight where it should be and fight inflammation throughout your body, all of which help lower the risk of developing heart disease.
So, how much exercise should you get for a healthy heart? The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggests adults strive for at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or some combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
What counts as exercise? Any aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping can tick this box, such as:
- Walking briskly
- Running or jogging
- Swimming laps
- Cycling (indoors or outdoors)
Adults should also do strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week to help burn fat and tone muscle. This includes the following strength-training ideas:
- Lifting weights, including hand weights or dumbbells
- Using weight machines at the gym
- Using your own bodyweight as resistance for moves like push-ups and squats
- Using resistance bands
These two forms of exercise provide synergistic benefits for your heart by raising high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol, and lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol.
Lose weight, if needed
According to the AHA, carrying around excess weight is linked to certain heart disease risk factors, including:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
What to aim for: A body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 in adults is typically considered healthy, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. BMI takes both height and weight into account.
How to do it: Lose weight slowly. Set achievable goals, such as losing 10% of your current weight. Shoot for about 1/2 pound to 2 pounds a week. If you lose too much weight too quickly, you’re less likely to keep it off. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise can help you lose weight and maintain your weight loss.
If you smoke, quit. There have never been as many smoking cessation tools available to help you kick the tobacco habit as there are today.
How to do it: Nicotine replacement products — such as patches, gum, lozenges and other medications that help reduce your cravings for nicotine — can work alone or in combination with counseling support groups. Talk to your doctor about the best way for you to stop smoking, set a quit date and stick to it.
Know where you stand numbers-wise
Knowing your numbers for key heart risk factors can help determine how well you’re doing when implementing heart-healthy changes. The three numbers to consider include:
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
Ideal blood pressure levels are less than 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg), according to the AHA. Systolic pressure (the top number) is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats while pumping blood. In contrast, diastolic pressure (the bottom number) describes the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between heartbeats.
According to the CDC, men and women should aim for the cholesterol levels below:
- A total cholesterol of about 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL)
- LDL cholesterol of about 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol of 50 mg/dL or higher in women and 40 mg/dL or higher in men
- Triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL
Blood sugar (glucose)
High blood sugar or glucose levels are a sign of diabetes. According to the CDC:
- A normal fasting blood sugar level is 99 mg/dL or lower
- A fasting blood sugar level that suggests prediabetes is 100 to 125 mg/dL
- A fasting blood sugar level that indicates diabetes is 126 mg/dL or higher
Know when heart medication may be needed
Prevention tactics, such as eating a heart-healthy diet, losing weight and getting regular exercise, remain the best ways to stay on top of heart disease risk factors, but these measures aren’t always enough.
Many types of medication are available to help lower your risk and treat heart disease. Talk to your doctor about what medication may be appropriate for you.
According to the AHA, if you have high blood pressure, a significant risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, your doctor may prescribe:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers
- Beta blockers
- Calcium channel blockers (CCBs)
Beta blockers may also help prevent future heart attacks in those who’ve already had a heart attack.
Anticoagulants (blood thinners), including aspirin, may help prevent blood clots from developing and reduce heart attack risk.
According to the AHA, for high cholesterol, medication options include:
- Cholesterol absorption inhibitors
- Nicotinic acids
- Combination statin and cholesterol absorption inhibitors
In addition, sometimes surgery is needed to treat underlying heart issues or open blocked blood vessels to restore blood flow to the heart.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Heart Disease Facts.
American Heart Association (AHA): Inflammation and Heart Disease.
American Heart Association (AHA): What is a healthy diet? Recommended Serving Infographic.
American Heart Association (AHA): Shaking the Salt Habit to Lower High Blood Pressure.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition.
Johns Hopkins Medicine: 3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI): Aim for a Healthy Weight.
American Heart Association (AHA): Keeping a Healthy Body Weight.
American Heart Association (AHA): How to Quit Tobacco Fact Sheet.
American Heart Association (AHA): Know Your Numbers.
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Heart Diseases.
American Heart Association (AHA): Types of Heart Medications.