The latest stats on heart disease may make yours beat a little faster: One in three of us—about 80 million Americans—has some form of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, stroke, chest pain and heart failure. What's more, every 34 seconds one American has a heart attack. But ticker trouble isn't a foregone conclusion. In fact, most heart disease wouldn't happen if we took a few simple preventive steps, like the ones described below by leading cardiologists. Read on for the best ways to keep your body's most important piece of equipment going strong.
1. Scale down on the white stuff
On average, Americans eat more than 22 teaspoons of sugar (about 350 calories' worth) and nearly 2 teaspoons of salt per day, both habits that can do a number on your heart. Sugar ups your weight, blood pressure and triglyceride levels; excessive salt raises blood pressure by making your body retain fluid. So what's the fix? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting less than 1 teaspoon (6 grams) of salt per day, but recent research from the University of California, San Francisco suggests that even a 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) reduction per day would mean 6 percent fewer new cases of heart disease, 8 percent fewer heart attacks and 3 percent fewer deaths over 10 years. Steering clear of processed foods and flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of salt are easy ways to trim salt from your diet. Plus, scaling down on sugar—the AHA recommends women get no more than 6 teaspoons or 25 grams per day (9 teaspoons/38 grams per day for men)—has benefits beyond your ticker. If a woman cut back to 6 teaspoons from her current daily average of 22 teaspoons by limiting foods and beverages containing sucrose, fructose or glucose, she could lose about a half pound a week (a man would lose slightly less by hitting his 9 teaspoon quota).
2. Walk—a lot
Researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine found that heart disease patients who walked 45 to 60 minutes five to seven days per week at a moderate pace shed double the pounds over five months—and showed greater improvements in "good" cholesterol and blood pressure—compared to patients who rehabbed with shorter, less frequent, faster-paced walking sessions. A similar walking regimen may also help prevent heart disease for the high-risk set, including people who are overweight or have pre-diabetes or high blood pressure. To lower heart disease risk, "exercise needs to burn a lot of calories and it needs to be a lifelong habit," says Dr. Philip A. Ades, study leader and director of cardiac rehabilitation and preventive cardiology. "Intensity doesn't matter as much as duration."
3. Go Mediterranean
The route to a healthy heart may be through the Mediterranean—that is, the diet that emphasizes fish, whole grains, fruits and veggies, olive oil and moderate alcohol intake and limited consumption of red meat, refined grains and sweets. Nearly 75,000 women who closely followed the Mediterranean diet over two decades slashed their heart disease risk by 29 percent and their stroke risk by 13 percent. What's more, they cut their risk for death from both heart disease and stroke by 39 percent.
4. Look on the bright side
Based on results from a study that followed 97,000 women for nearly a decade, optimists are nine percent less likely to develop heart disease and 30 percent less likely to die from it. "Cynical and hostile people tend to have higher heart rates, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones, which can make arteries vulnerable to plaque," says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program. In one study, people who did this meditation cut their heart disease risk in half: For 20 minutes, twice a day, sit quietly with your eyes closed, allowing your mind to focus and relax.
5. Take your blood pressure at home
Forget fancy screening tests. If you have high blood pressure, checking your blood pressure at home can be an accurate way to keep tabs on your heart, the AHA reports. Blood pressure readings can sometimes register low or high during doctor's visits—a phenomenon known as "white coat hypertension"—so monitoring your blood pressure in the comfort of your home may actually give your doctor a better gauge of your levels. But don't think you can avoid the M.D. altogether. "Home monitoring doesn't replace office monitoring," says Dr. Goldberg. "But it adds to the information your doctor needs to decide if you need treatment." If your doctor green lights home monitoring, choose a machine with a cuff that goes around your upper arm and inflates electronically—it gives the most reliable reading—and have him or her check the device's accuracy and show you how to use it. Visit dableducational.org for a list of recommended monitors ranging from $50 to $100.
6. Snuff out cigarettes
If you're among the more than 43 million Americans who light up, maybe the latest stats will change your mind: Smoking up to three cigarettes per day boosts the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 64 percent. Smoking 8 to 12 cigarettes ups it by 79 percent. Plus, breathing moderate to high levels of secondhand smoke or air pollution raises risk by 20 to 30 percent. There's no other way to put it: "Smoking and secondhand smoke are bad for you," stresses Dr. Russell Luepker, an AHA spokesperson. The chemicals in them cause blood to clot more easily and make the heart beat more rapidly. While there's not much you can do about air pollution, you can toss your cigarettes and minimize your exposure to secondhand smoke. Need more proof? Mississippi researchers recently reported a 27 percent decrease in heart attacks in a town that banned smoking in public places in 2006.