Looking to improve your cardiovascular well-being? Here are some factors you can work on if you want to keep your heart healthy as you age.
1. Know the Symptoms of Heart Attack and Impaired Circulation…Plus Your Own Risk Factors
Did you know that there are other, more subtle signs of a heart attack besides chest pain?
Many people, especially women, experience pain in the arm, back and even teeth that is actually associated with the heart. Other possible heart attack symptoms include a sensation of squeezing or pressure, shortness of breath, nausea and lightheadedness.
Safe is better than sorry—if you think you might be having a heart attack seek immediate medical attention.
What’s more, if you suffer from conditions such as peripheral artery disease (PAD), marked by reduced blood flow in the limbs, or erectile dysfunction, beware. These disorders can indicate the presence of atherosclerosis throughout your circulatory system, including the arteries that feed your heart and brain, and should prompt a complete cardiovascular checkup.
Of course, it helps to know if you’re at risk for heart trouble even if you have no symptoms at all.
Research indicates that genes appear to play an important role in determining the risk of developing heart disease; increasing age and being overweight are two others. If you’re at high risk, make exercise and dietary changes a priority.
2. Avoid Smoke (Yours and Others’)
Tobacco use is a key cardiovascular risk factor that’s within your control.
Even one or two cigarettes a day may dramatically increase the risk of heart attack or stroke or other serious condition. What’s more, smoking is even riskier when combined with high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, according to theNational Heart Blood and Lung Institute.
Also avoid secondhand smoke, which can also increase cardiac risk. Steer clear of smoky air in public and don’t let anyone smoke in your home.
3. Control Other Controllables: Cholesterol, Glucose, Pressure…
You can manage additional cardiac risk factors as well.
One is your cholesterol count: According to theNational Institutes of Health, total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL. LDL (“bad”) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. HDL (“good”) cholesterol should be more than 40 mg/dL for men, more than 50 for women. Triglycerides (blood fats) should be less than 150 mg/dL.
People with high glucose levels, or diabetes, have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The NIH says glucose levels should be under 99 mg/dL; levels of between 100 and 125 mg/dL indicate you’re at elevated diabetes risk, while levels over 125 mg/dL indicate outright diabetes.
High blood pressure is harmful because it damages arterial walls, making the development of artery-clogging plaque more likely. Normal blood pressure should be below 120/80 mm/Hg, according to the NIH. High blood pressure, or hypertension, starts at anything above 140/90; readings between these two levels indicate an elevated hypertension risk.
4. …And Your Anger
Strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, frustration or anxiety, can increase blood pressure and put stress on the heart.Researchers report that heart attack risk rises among people with high levels of psychosocial distress.
At that point anger can morph into hostility, which has three aspects: “Cynical mistrust of other people, increased tendency to get angry at others and an increased tendency to express that anger—yelling, honking the horn,” saysRedford Williams, MD, co-author of Anger Kills (Harper Paperbacks). He adds that physiological changes associated with anger “increase the development of atherosclerosis, particularly in younger age groups.”
Instead of being in a perpetual stew, find healthy ways to let off steam, such as through vigorous exercise.
5. Defuse Stress (Hint: Music Helps)
Like excessive anger, stress may affect heart disease and stroke risk factors through its effects on behavior. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would. What’s more, the hormonal changes associated withchronic stress may raise blood pressure and heart rate.
Typical stress-busting recommendations include meditation, yoga and Tai Chi. However, scientists are now learning that music may also help: For example, a study inArthritis Care & Research showed that singing enabled a 76-year-old woman to control her blood pressure prior to undergoing surgery.
Other research suggests that listening to music may help lessen stress and anxiety.
Want some movement with your music? Dancing fulfills the requirement for aerobic exercise and also works as a stress reliever, says cardiologistSohah Iqbal, MD: “It provides two ways to keep your heart healthy for the price of one.”
6. Monitor Your Waist—and Your BMI
Belly (visceral) fat is a clear predictor of increased risk of heart disease.Studies show that for every extra two inches of belly fat your risk of heart disease increases by 20%.
Normal body mass index (BMI) ranges from 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2. A BMI higher than 27 is considered overweight while a BMI higher than 30 indicates obesity, which is linked to increased cardiovascular risk.
7. Clean Up Your Diet…
Studies link a high-fiber diet—like that found in whole grains, fresh produce and beans—with a lower risk of heart disease. Another positive for produce: Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals as well as healthful pigments called flavonoids.
Pair your veggies with some fresh fish: It has less saturated fat than meats and is high in healthful omega-3 fatty acids. Eating one to two servings a week of fatty fish (such as salmon) may help reduce the risk of heart disease, according to theMayo Clinic.
On the other hand, ingesting too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. TheCenters for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium, or approximately a teaspoon of salt, each day.
8. …But Make Room for (a Little) Dark Chocolate
The good news: Pure dark chocolate (not the milk or white varieties) is a rich source of heart-healthy antioxidants called catechins. The bad news: Chocolate still has plenty of calories. Limit yourself to an ounce a day.
9. Fit More (and More Intense) Exercise Into Your Day
The standard recommendation is to spend 30 minutes a day on exercise. Think you don’t have time? TheAmerican Heart Association says you can break that up into three 10-minute bouts of activity a day.
As an easy on-the-go exercise, take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator whenever you can. It is also a great way to monitor your cardiac health: If you can’t make up the same amount of stairs you did a week ago without stopping, see your physician for a checkup.
Climbing stairs also helps up your exercise intensity level. A casual walk may not get your heart rate up enough to make a difference, so you should work out hard enough that you sweat and are tired afterwards. If you’re a little sore the next day, that’s a good thing. Increase the intensity on a treadmill by increasing the incline.
10. See Your Dentist (Seriously)
Oral health translates to heart health:A study from Taiwan of more than 100,000 people showed that those who had their teeth professionally cleaned and scaled by a dentist or dental hygienist lowered their risk of heart attack by 24% compared with those who never had a dental cleaning.
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