Strategies to prevent heart disease

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

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Heart disease is a leading cause of death. You can't change some risk factors for it, such as family history, sex at birth or age. But you can take plenty of other steps to lower your risk of heart disease.

Get started with these eight tips to boost your heart health:

1. Don't smoke or use tobacco

One of the best things you can do for your heart is to stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco. Even if you're not a smoker, be sure to stay away from secondhand smoke.

Chemicals in tobacco can damage the heart and blood vessels. Cigarette smoke lowers the oxygen in the blood, which raises blood pressure and heart rate. That's because the heart has to work harder to supply enough oxygen to the body and brain.

There's good news though. The risk of heart disease starts to drop in as little as a day after quitting. After a year without cigarettes, the risk of heart disease drops to about half that of a smoker. No matter how long or how much you smoked, you'll start reaping rewards as soon as you quit.

2. Get moving: Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of activity daily

Regular, daily physical activity can lower the risk of heart disease. Physical activity helps control your weight. It also lowers the chances of getting other conditions that may put a strain on the heart. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

If you haven't been active for a while, you may need to slowly work your way up to these goals. But in general, you should aim for at least:

  • 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace.
  • 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, such as running.
  • Two or more strength training sessions a week.

Even shorter bouts of activity offer heart benefits. So if you can't meet those guidelines, don't give up. Just five minutes of moving can help. Activities such as gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs and walking the dog all count toward your total. You don't have to exercise hard to benefit. But you can see bigger benefits if you boost the intensity, length and frequency of your workouts.

3. Eat a heart-healthy diet

A healthy diet can help protect the heart, improve blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. A heart-healthy eating plan includes:

  • Vegetables and fruits.
  • Beans or other legumes.
  • Lean meats and fish.
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy foods.
  • Whole grains.
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado.

Two examples of heart-healthy food plans include the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and the Mediterranean diet.

Take in less of the following:

  • Salt or high-sodium meals.
  • Sugar or sweetened beverages.
  • Highly refined carbohydrates.
  • Alcohol.
  • Highly processed food, such as processed meats.
  • Saturated fat, which is found in red meat, full-fat dairy products, palm oil and coconut oil.
  • Trans fat, which is found in some fried fast food, chips and baked goods.

4. Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight — especially around the middle of the body — raises the risk of heart disease. Extra weight can lead to conditions that raise the chances of getting heart disease. These conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

The body mass index (BMI) uses height and weight to find out whether a person is overweight or obese. A BMI of 25 or higher is considered overweight. In general, it's linked with higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Waist circumference also can be a useful tool to measure how much belly fat you have. The risk of heart disease is higher if the waist measurement is greater than:

  • 40 inches (101.6 centimeters, or cm) for men.
  • 35 inches (88.9 cm) for women.

Even a small weight loss can be good for you. Reducing weight by just 3% to 5% can help lower certain fats in the blood called triglycerides. It can lower blood sugar, also called glucose. And it can cut the risk of type 2 diabetes. Losing even more helps lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

5. Get quality sleep

People who don't get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and depression.

Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night. Children usually need more. So make sure you get enough rest. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. To do that, go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet too, so it's easier to sleep.

Talk to a member of your health care team if you feel like you get enough sleep but you're still tired throughout the day. Ask if you need to be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea. It's a condition that can raise your risk of heart disease. Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include loud snoring, stopping breathing for short times during sleep and waking up gasping for air. Treatment for obstructive sleep apnea may involve losing weight if you're overweight. It also might involve using a device that keeps your airway open while you sleep. This is called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

6. Manage stress

Ongoing stress can play a role in higher blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. Some people also cope with stress in unhealthy ways. For example, they may overeat, drink or smoke. You can boost your health by finding other ways to manage stress. Healthy tactics include physical activity, relaxation exercises, mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

If stress becomes overwhelming, get a health care checkup. Ongoing stress may be linked with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. These conditions also are tied to heart disease risk factors, including higher blood pressure and less blow flow to the heart. If you think you might have depression or anxiety, it's important to get treatment.

7. Get regular health screening tests

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage the heart and blood vessels. But if you don't get checked for these conditions, you likely won't know whether you have them. Regular screening tests can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.

  • Blood pressure. Regular blood pressure screenings usually start in childhood. Starting at age 18, blood pressure should be measured at least once every two years. This checks for high blood pressure as a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

    If you're between 18 and 39 and have risk factors for high blood pressure, you'll likely be screened once a year. People age 40 and older also are given a blood pressure test yearly.

  • Cholesterol levels. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that cholesterol screenings start between the ages of 9 and 11. Earlier testing may be recommended if you have other risk factors, such as a family history of early-onset heart disease. After the first cholesterol test, screenings should be repeated every five years. Then the timing changes with age. The NHLBI recommends that women ages 55 to 65 and men ages 45 to 65 get screened every 1 to 2 years. People over 65 should get their cholesterol tested once a year.
  • Type 2 diabetes screening. Diabetes involves ongoing high blood sugar levels. It raises the chances of getting heart disease. Risk factors for diabetes include being overweight and having a family history of diabetes. If you have any of the risk factors, your health care team may recommend early screening. If not, screening is recommended starting at age 45. Then you get your blood sugar levels tested again every three years.

If you have a condition such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, talk with your health care team. Your doctor may prescribe medicines and recommend lifestyle changes. Make sure to take your medicines exactly as prescribed, and follow a healthy-lifestyle plan.

8. Take steps to prevent infections

Certain infections may lead to heart problems. For instance, gum disease may be a risk factor for heart and blood vessel diseases. So brush and floss daily. Get regular dental checkups too.

Other illnesses caused by infections can make existing heart problems worse. Vaccines help protect against infectious diseases. So stay up to date on the following shots:

  • Yearly flu vaccine.
  • COVID-19 vaccine, which lowers the chances of getting very sick.
  • Pneumococcal vaccine, which reduces the risk of certain illnesses caused by bacteria.
  • Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

Ask your health care professional if you need any other vaccines too.

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Aug. 17, 2023 See more In-depth

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