Strategies to prevent heart disease

You can prevent heart disease by following a heart-healthy lifestyle. Here are strategies to help you protect your heart.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Heart disease may be a leading cause of death, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it as your fate. Although you lack the power to change some risk factors — such as family history, sex or age — there are some key heart disease prevention steps you can take to reduce your risk.

You can avoid heart problems in the future by adopting a healthy lifestyle today. Here are seven heart disease prevention tips to get you started.

1. Don't smoke or use tobacco

Smoking or using tobacco of any kind is one of the most significant risk factors for developing heart disease. Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to narrowing of the arteries due to plaque buildup (atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis can ultimately lead to a heart attack.

Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke replaces some of the oxygen in your blood. This increases your blood pressure and heart rate by forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen.

Women who smoke and take birth control pills are at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke than are those who don't smoke or take birth control pills, because both can increase the risk of blood clots.

When it comes to heart disease prevention, no amount of smoking is safe. But, the more you smoke, the greater your risk. Smokeless tobacco, low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes, and secondhand smoke also can be risky. Even so-called social smoking — smoking only while at a bar or restaurant with friends — can be dangerous and increase the risk of heart disease.

The good news, though, is that your risk of heart disease begins to lower soon after quitting. Your risk of coronary heart disease significantly reduces one year after quitting smoking. Your risk of coronary heart disease drops almost to that of a nonsmoker in about 15 years. And no matter how long or how much you smoked, you'll start reaping rewards as soon as you quit.

2. Exercise for about 30 minutes on most days of the week

Getting some regular, daily exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. And when you combine physical activity with other lifestyle measures, such as maintaining a healthy weight, the payoff is even greater.

Physical activity can help you control your weight and reduce your chances of developing other conditions that may put a strain on your heart, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

In general, you should do moderate exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace, for about 30 minutes on most days of the week. That can help you reach the Department of Health and Human Services recommendations of 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. For even more health benefits, aim for 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week. In addition, aim to do strength training exercises two or more days a week.

However, even shorter amounts of exercise than these recommendations can offer heart benefits, so if you can't meet those guidelines, don't give up. You can even get the same health benefits if you break up your workout time into three 10-minute sessions most days of the week.

And remember that activities such as gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs and walking the dog all count toward your total. You don't have to exercise strenuously to achieve benefits, but you can see bigger benefits by increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of your workouts.

3. Eat a heart-healthy diet

Eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease. Two examples of heart-healthy food plans include the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and the Mediterranean diet.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help protect your heart. Aim to eat beans, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meats, and fish as part of a healthy diet.

Avoid too much salt and sugars in your diet.

Limiting certain fats you eat also is important. Of the types of fat — saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat — try to limit or avoid saturated fat and trans fat. Aim to keep saturated fat to 5 or 6 percent of your daily calories. And try to keep trans fat out of your diet altogether.

Major sources of saturated fat include:

  • Red meat
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Coconut and palm oils

Sources of trans fat include:

  • Deep-fried fast foods
  • Bakery products
  • Packaged snack foods
  • Margarines
  • Crackers, chips and cookies

If the nutrition label has the term "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated," it means that product contains trans fat.

But you don't have to cut all fats out of your diet. Healthy fats from plant-based sources — such as avocado, nuts, olives and olive oil — help your heart by lowering the bad type of cholesterol.

Most people need to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets — with a goal of five to 10 servings a day. Eating many fruits and vegetables not only can help prevent heart disease, but also may help improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and improve diabetes.

Eating two or more servings a week of certain fish, such as salmon and tuna, may decrease your risk of heart disease.

Following a heart-healthy diet also means keeping an eye on how much alcohol you drink. If you choose to drink alcohol, it's better for your heart to do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. One drink is defined as 12 ounces (355 milliliters, or mL) of beer, 5 ounces of wine (148 mL), or 1.5 fluid ounces (44mL) of 80-proof distilled spirits.

At that moderate level, alcohol may have a protective effect on your heart. Too much alcohol can become a health hazard.

June 17, 2016 See more In-depth