Understanding matters of the heart can be complex. There can be genetic predispositions for heart risks, but genetic factors are just one piece of the overall heart health picture. Some experts believe only about 20 percent of cardiovascular risk is genetic, however, it is likely that families share common environments, lifestyles, and habits which can result in shared risk or shared wellness—depending on if the shared environment, lifestyle and habits are health hurting or health-promoting. Medical conditions, unhealthy habits, and social determinants can pose a higher risk for heart disease. The good news is that we can embrace heart-healthy behaviors to positively influence our picture of health.
Lifestyle strategies and healthy habits can promote heart health.
The American Heart Association endorses Life’s Simple 7:
- Be aware of your blood pressure and manage high blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
- Be aware of your cholesterol levels and control high cholesterol. High cholesterol can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke.
- Be aware of your blood sugar levels or reduce blood sugar. A lifetime of high levels of blood sugar can damage your heart.
- Move your body. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends physical activity for heart health. A well-rounded physical activity program includes safely elevating the heart rate and muscle/bone-strengthening activities. Aim for 30-60 minutes each day. Recommended physical activity guidelines for adults:
- Vigorous-intensity aerobic activity should be included at least 3 days a week
- Muscle-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week
- Bone-strengthening activities should be included at least 3 days a week
- Eat real food, eat better. Experiment with plant-based meals. Increase fruit, vegetable, and beans or other legumes consumption. Higher intake of nutrients found in fruits and vegetables is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The nutrients should come from real food, not supplements. Top real food choices for the heart include omega 3 foods (e.g. salmon, chia and walnuts), berries and apples, and leafy greens like spinach. The American Heart Association reports that consuming about ½ tablespoon or more of olive oil daily may lower heart disease risk.
- Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
- Stop smoking. Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Bonus heart strategies:
Manage distress. There is currently no evidence to prove that stress management can prevent broken heart syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy), but managing stress is good for overall wellbeing. Broken heart syndrome can occur when a distressing emotional or physical event occurs. Broken heart syndrome can mimic a heart attack. See a healthcare provider if you are experiencing heart attack symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest/arm pain. Broken heart syndrome is treatable and the condition usually reverses itself over time.
Be mindful of environmental hygiene. If possible, keep safety in mind when choosing where to live. A safe community is conducive to healthier living because the likelihood of being physically active in the community increases in safe neighborhoods.
Get your sleep. People who do not regularly get quality sleep have a higher risk of a heart attack.
Reduce alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol intake can increase the risk of a heart attack. Try a mindful approach to drinking if the idea of going “cold turkey” doesn’t seem feasible.
- Center the thoughts (aim for 20 minutes) before deciding to have a drink. Remove chatter by consciously becoming aware of your surroundings or looking for an activity to keep the mind busy (e.g. go for a walk and notice nature, focus on breath, read a book, turn on a comedy or music, phone a friend) before deciding to have a drink (or another drink); the urge may pass.
- Remove alcohol triggers from the environment, do not have alcohol in the house.
- Try swapping out alcoholic drinks for non-alcoholic mocktails. This allows for an enjoyable “cheers” moment minus the alcohol risk.
- If drinking daily, start with 1-3 days of no drinking and gradually build up the number of no drinking days. When you do drink, gradually reduce the number of drinks being consumed.
- When imbibing – savor the flavor, enjoy each sip to elongate the experience, and pause between sips. Alternate a sip of water within the sips of alcohol to extend the shelf life of the drink. Extending the time it takes to consume one drink may lead to not wanting another drink.
- Before ordering or pouring a drink pause for a moment and think, “do I really need a drink? Will tomorrow’s me be happy that I chose to have a drink?” “I will sleep better and have more energy tomorrow if I skip the alcohol”.
- Seek support. Remember, there are free community resources, or classes available to help those struggling with alcohol. Join a support network, or make an appointment with a healthcare professional for guidance.