The answer might surprise you.
If you think you’re already doing an A+ job of caring for your heart, consider this: 99 percent of Americans need to do more for their heart health. Statistically speaking, that probably includes you. Here are some surprising facts about cardiovascular disease—plus steps you should take now for heart disease prevention.
Nearly half of American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease—but not all Americans are affected equally. African Americans, for instance, are 20 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic Whites. There is some good news: The death rate among those with heart disease is dropping. We’re not out of the woods, though. Researchers worry cardiovascular disease could start to rise again as risk factors like obesity and diabetes are becoming more prevalent.
Heart disease is the number-one killer of men and women in America. And while many women in this country have at least one risk factor for heart disease, most don’t know the disease’s symptoms or risk factors—or their own level of risk. Women diagnosed with heart disease face significant barriers. They’re less likely to receive care from a cardiologist or to be referred to cardiac rehabilitation programs than men are, for a start. Heart disease prevention is the best course for everyone, but it may be especially vital for women.
Remember that everyone is affected by cardiovascular disease. Adopt a heart-helping lifestyle, regardless of your sex or age. That means eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and managing your weight.
For starters, don’t fly blind. Make an appointment with your health-care provider to discuss your cardiovascular disease risk factors. Find out your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers and determine next steps.
Eating a healthy diet based on whole plant foods helps in maintaining a healthy weight, preventing diabetes, and tamping down blood pressure and cholesterol—nearly all the major risk factors for heart disease. At least eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day is good; more is better! Leafy greens (think kale, lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard) are the veggies most strongly associated with dropping risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to pumping you full of heart-healthy nutrients, filling up on plants doesn’t leave much room for processed foods high in heart-harming sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
Regardless of cardiovascular concern, fiber is an important component of any diet. Known for its ability to “move things along” digestively, fiber is also an important factor in regulating blood sugar levels. Keeping glucose levels stabilized will reduce the risk of plaque formation on artery walls. Fiber is also an effective way to lower cholesterol levels, as fiber is very efficient at binding cholesterol and removing it from the bloodstream. Aim to get 25 g of fiber per day if you’re a woman and 38 g for a man, ensuring the sources are a good mix of soluble and insoluble fiber.
When you hop on your bike or huff your way through a HIIT workout, you’re probably thinking about how exercise builds muscle, whisks away stress, and manages weight. You probably aren’t thinking about it bettering your blood—but it does. Exercise lowers blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar. Aim to get at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week. And remember: The higher your cardiorespiratory fitness, the better for your heart—so jog that extra lap around the block!
Sleep is an underappreciated supporter of heart function. For people who eat well, exercise, and don’t smoke, getting seven hours of sleep per night further decreases cardiovascular risk. On the other hand, sleeping less than seven hours a night is associated with high blood pressure, increased levels of stress hormones, weight gain, and the development of diabetes. Can you afford not to get a good night’s rest?
While some studies have suggested that moderate alcohol intake is associated with better cardiovascular health, others have found it actually worsens certain heart health outcomes. Alcohol can also increase your blood pressure and your waistline while putting you at higher risk of other serious illnesses like cancer and liver disease. You may be better off with a handful of antioxidant-rich grapes instead. If you drink, limit your consumption. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that “moderate consumption” means up to one drink per day for women and up to two per day for men, but recent research suggests less than one drink a day is ideal for all adults.
Along with lifestyle strategies like managing stress, key supplements can help to support heart health. Always check with your health care practitioner which options will work best for you.