29 Tips for a
Healthy Heart

It’s Heart Health month, which means there’s no shortage of counsel on how
to take care of yours. To help you keep cardiac well-being top of mind, here is
a bite-sized nugget of health advice for each day of the month.

February 2012

By Linda Melone


Know the symptoms of a heart attack

Crushing chest pain is the classic symptom, but discomfort can actually occur in a number of places. 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.


Know your heart disease risk

A study from the Center for Primary Health Care Research in Sweden, published in the American Heart Journal, shows that genes appear to be most important in determining the risk of developing heart disease. If you’re at high risk, make exercise and dietary changes a priority.


Recognize signs of impaired circulation

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.


See your dentist regularly

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% (13% for stroke) compared with those who never had a dental cleaning.


Watch your waist

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%, says David Hsi, MD, chair of cardiology at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, New Jersey. Scientists report a link between inflammation around the cells of visceral fat deposits and atherosclerosis.


Keep your BMI in check

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.


Eat at least 25 grams of fiber daily

Studies link a high-fiber diet with a lower risk of heart disease. Fiber in oats, beans and citrus fruits, such as oranges, helps reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. A study from Northwestern Medicine found that adults with the highest fiber intake significantly lowered their estimated lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed the lowest amount of fiber.


Eat colorful vegetables and fruits

Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals as well as being low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. They also contain healthful pigments called flavonoids, which can reduce the risk of inflammation—a crucial factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. (Whole food-based supplements can provide some nutritional backup.)


Reduce your sodium intake

Ingesting too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium, or approximately a teaspoon of salt, each day.


Eat low fat and the right fat

Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat (partially hydrogenated fats), all of which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Also eat plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol and should be avoided completely.


Eat more fish

Fish has less saturated fat than meats and are high in 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, particularly sudden cardiac death, according to the Mayo Clinic. Consider taking an omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil.


Go vegetarian (at least part time)

Cutting animal products—red meat, chicken, milk, cheese, etc.—from your diet one or two days a week can be a big help in lowering your cholesterol, says Andrew Freeman, MD, FACC, FACP, a
cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver.


Watch portion sizes

To keep calories—and belly fat—under control, know your portions: 3 ounces of meat or chicken is the size of a deck of cards, 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese equals three dice. For other portion tips visit www.webmd.com/diet/healthtool-portion-size-plate.


Indulge a little with 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.


Ease chronic inflammation

Constant, low-level inflammation increases your risk of heart problems. Your practitioner can monitor your inflammation levels by checking your C-reactive protein (CRP) numbers. Nancy Appleton, PhD, nutritionist and author of Stopping Inflammation (Square One), says to avoid sugar—“if you see anything that has more than 6 grams of sugar per serving, stay away”—and check for food allergies. A study in Stroke (10/11) shows that a diet rich in antioxidants, such as foods containing vitamins A, C and E, helps reduce the risk of inflammation.


Quit smoking

Even one or two cigarettes a day can dramatically increase the risk of heart attack, stroke or other serious condition, says Jason Freeman, MD, director of Interventional Cardiology at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, New York. A major risk factor on its own, the risk of heart disease increases further when smoking is combined with high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, according to the National Heart Blood and Lung Institute.


Avoid secondhand smoke, too

Inhaling someone else’s cigarette smoke increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 30%, according to a report published in Circulation. Steer clear of smoky air in public and don’t let anyone smoke in your home.


Control your cholesterol

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL. LDL (“bad”) cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL for people at high risk of cardiovascular disease, below 130 for everyone else. HDL (“good”) cholesterol should be more than 40 mg/dL for men, more than 50 for women; levels above 60 mg/dL are considered protective against heart disease. Triglycerides (blood fats) should be less than l50 mg/dL.


Time your medications or supplements

If you are on cholesterol medication, when you take it can have an impact on how well it works. The enzymes in your liver that make cholesterol are most active at night; talk to your practitioner about taking your medication before bed, which may increase its effectiveness. A number of natural remedies also reduce cholesterol, including monacolin, a substance found in red yeast rice, and tocotrienol complex. These may also be more effective when taken at night. Again, speak to your practitioner.


Monitor your blood pressure

The AHA says normal blood pressure should be below 120/80 mm/Hg. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke; if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, aim to lower your blood pressure to less than 140/80 mm/Hg. Check with your practitioner regarding what blood pressure level is right for you.


Manage diabetes

People with diabetes, especially women, have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease because diabetes increases other risk factors such as elevated cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Work with your practitioner to keep diabetes under control with diet, lifestyle changes and other means.


Take 10

If you don’t have time to get in the recommended 30-minute exercise session daily, the AHA recommends three 10-minute bouts of activity a day instead, equivalent to meet the fitness requirements of one half-hour session.


Increase exercise intensity

A casual walk may not get your heart rate up enough to make a difference. 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 upping the incline.


Take the stairs

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.


Dance like nobody’s watching

Dancing fulfills the requirement for aerobic exercise and also works as a stress reliever, says Sohah Iqbal, MD, NYU Medical Center interventional cardiologist. “Dancing provides two ways to keep your heart healthy for the price of one.” Dance around your house for 10 minutes at a time as part of your 30 minutes of accumulated daily activity.


Carry a tune

A study in the journal Arthritis Care & Research (4/11) 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 to lessen stress and anxiety, contributors to cardiovascular risk.


Reduce stress

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 with chronic stress may raise blood pressure and heart rate. Take up meditation, yoga or Tai Chi to help reduce stress’s unhealthy effects.


Take a nap

After psychological stress, participants who took a 45-minute nap had lower average blood pressures than those who did not, according to research from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. These results show that sleeping between 45 and 60 minutes during the day appears to help lower blood pressure after a stressful mental task.


Control your emotions

Strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, frustration or anxiety, can increase blood pressure and put stress on the heart. A 2004 Canadian study reported that heart attack risk for people with high levels of psychosocial distress nearly matched the risk seen in smokers.


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