8 Steps to a Healthier Heart

Healthy heart diet and sport gym equipment concept on blackboard

As an older adult, you know just how important it is to stay healthy as a way to lower the risk of illness. This is especially true when it comes to heart health. Cardiovascular issues are extremely common. In fact, one in every three deaths in the United States is due to heart disease. That means cardiovascular issues cause more deaths than all types of cancer combined. While there isn’t a way to completely prevent heart disease, there are a number of things you can do to drastically reduce your risk factors.

Making smart lifestyle choices can help you keep your heart healthy and reduce the risk of a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.

“Most people know what it takes for a healthy heart, but they are often filled with excuses of why they don’t take steps to make it happen,” says Coach Sarah Walls, personal trainer and owner of SAPT Strength & Performance Training, Inc., who is also the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. “Taking care of our heart health should be a top priority for everyone.”

Understanding the most common risk factors for heart disease can enable you to take action to make healthier choices. What follows are eight key ways to improve your heart health.

1. See a Doctor Regularly

One of the most effective ways to reduce your risk for heart disease is to attend regular physical checkups with your doctor. As you get older, these appointments should include tests for cholesterol, blood pressure and other potential risk factors.

Diabetes can also increase the risk of heart disease, and statistics show that about one-third of American adults are pre-diabetic. Regular medical care can help manage diabetes, reducing the possibility of heart disease.

2. Get regular exercise

While eating a nutritious diet can help you avoid obesity and the associated cardiovascular risks, it’s also important to make sure that you’re getting regular exercise. Physical activity can improve your heart health, lower your resting heart rate, and help you maintain a healthy weight.

For overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least a half hour of moderate aerobic exercise five days a week, or a half hour of vigorous cardio activity three days a week. This aerobic activity should be combined with muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days a week.

3. Manage stress

While there’s not a clear, direct link between stress and heart disease, research has shown that stress can affect a number of behaviors and elements that raise your risk, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking, according to the American Heart Association.

Luckily, using stress reduction techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi or meditation can help calm you and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that raises the risk of heart attack, says Walls.

4. Ditch tobacco

Smoking tobacco is one of the most prevalent risk factors for heart disease. There are numerous studies linking tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke) with cardiovascular disease and cancer. If you’re a smoker, one of the best things you can do for your heart health is to quit right away. Many have found success using aids such as nicotine gum or patches.

5. Eat healthfully

Your diet contributes heavily to your overall health and your risk of heart disease. Choosing healthy foods and consuming the right amount of calories daily can help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your heart in good condition. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs. Some plant-based substances can help prevent cardiovascular disease. Additionally, filling up on produce can help you avoid eating too many high-fat foods.

Choosing whole grains over refined options is also important. Whole grains provide fiber and other nutrients, and they can help you maintain a healthy blood pressure. Cutting back on sugar and unhealthy fats in your diet can also help strengthen your heart and lower your risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, and other health issues.

6. Don’t Neglect Your Oral Health

“There is a strong link between gum disease and heart disease,” says Dr. Harold Katz, founder of oral care company Therabreath. “Periodontal disease is a form of inflammation (albeit in the mouth). The first step in this inflammation is known as gingivitis and the most obvious sign is bleeding gums (pink in the sink).”

These open wounds in the mouth allow toxins to enter and travel to other parts of the body, including the heart valves, Katz explains.

If you have sensitive, bleeding, or inflamed gums, it’s wise to seek treatment from a dentist. Lowering the risk of periodontal infection can improve your overall health and potentially reduce your risk of heart problems.

7. Understand your genetic history

Many cardiovascular risk factors have to do with genetics. People whose parents have had heart attacks or strokes usually have a higher risk of these issues. Additionally, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can also be affected by genetic factors.

While you can’t do anything to change your family’s medical history, understanding it can help you make the best decisions for your own health. If you have family members with heart disease, make sure to discuss this with your doctor. He or she may make different recommendations for heart-healthy lifestyle choices and the frequency of cholesterol, blood pressure, and cardiovascular tests.

8. Watch for signs and symptoms

While you may be familiar with the common symptoms of a heart attack, there are other signs that can indicate possible cardiovascular disease. Shortness of breath, sleep apnea, heartburn, chest or shoulder aches can all be potential indicators of heart problems.

Fatigue is another possible symptom, and it’s particularly common for women who have heart problems. You should discuss symptoms like these with your doctor, especially if they appear suddenly or increase in frequency.

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Heart disease is, unfortunately, a common issue for adults. However, there are several things you can do to significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack and other cardiovascular issues. Maintaining a nutritious diet, exercising, seeing a doctor and dentist regularly, and avoiding tobacco can improve your overall health and reduce your chances of heart disease.

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