You may have heard some scary news last month about heart health. According to a new study from the American Heart Association (AHA), one in three deaths in the United States is caused by cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, clogged arteries or related problems), making it the country’s top killer. Even scarier: Many of us don’t realize we’re at risk, says David Friedman, MD, chief of Heart Failure Services at Northwell Health’s Franklin Hospital and assistant professor of cardiology at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine.
“A lot of people are oblivious until one day a best friend or close relative has a heart attack or stroke,” says Friedman. “But we all have some level of risk, and that risk goes up as we get older. So we have to be vigilant.” The good news? Heart disease and its related conditions are almost entirely preventable.
In fact, following a few simple guidelines can dramatically reduce your danger of cardiovascular disaster, says Friedman, even if you’ve never worried about your heart before. Here’s how to start.
Stay away from smoke
There’s been a 30 percent drop in cigarette smoking since 1998 – but even so, the AHA study noted that nearly 19 percent of men and 15 percent of women lit up in 2014. If you’re still smoking, talk to your doctor about how to make 2016 the year you quit for good.
Not a smoker? You may still be putting your heart at risk if you spend time around others who smoke, or in environments where smoking is allowed. Breathing in secondhand smoke can cause heart disease, not to mention lung cancer and a host of other problems, says Friedman.
Luckily, New York State bans smoking in workplaces and entertainment venues. Improve your odds of staying healthy by making sure no one smokes in your home, your car or anywhere else you spend significant amounts of time.
Eat plant-based meals, not processed ones.
According to the AHA study, the proportion of adults consuming an ideal diet has increased over the last decade, from .7 percent in 2003-2004 to 1.5 percent in 2011-2012. But that means more than 98 percent of us could do better. And many of us could do a lot better, says Friedman. So what should you eat to keep your heart healthy? “To begin with, eat a plant-based diet with less fried and fatty foods,” says Friedman. “Try to stay away from anything processed, in boxes and packages.
” Limit salt, alcohol and sugary snacks, like candy and soda, which provide no real nutrients and can cause blood-sugar (and energy) levels to spike and then crash. The bottom line? Eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, and aim for fewer saturated fats and empty carbohydrates.
In the data tracked by the AHA, about one in three adults reported no physical activity outside of work. That’s a recipe for cardiovascular disaster, Friedman says.
In fact, the AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, at least five days a week. “It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once,” Friedman says. “I tell people to break it up. They can do 10 minutes in the morning on a stationary bike, for example, a 10-minute walk on their lunch break, and 10 minutes doing something active as soon as they get home, before they sit down for dinner and settle in for the night.”
If your heart can handle it, sub in some high-intensity aerobic activity a few times a week. And try to do some regular resistance training—using bands or dumbbells, or doing body-weight exercises like squats and push-ups. “Weight-training isn’t just for muscle strengthening,” Friedman says. “It has cardiovascular benefits, too.”
Get regular check-ups
If you don’t have an existing heart condition, an annual visit to your primary care doctor should be all you need to make sure your ticker is in working order. But don’t just assume you’re in the clear – it’s critical to know your key numbers, so ask your doctor about your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. If they’re high, ask what steps you should take to bring them down. (While you’re at it, talk to your doctor about any other risk factors you might have, such as diabetes, known to raise heart danger, or a family history of heart problems.) Remember: By making a few easy changes, you’re lowering your risk of being felled by America’s biggest killer