What is heart disease? The term covers many conditions that affect your heart. Most commonly, it refers to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
This condition can lead to plaque buildup in either your:
- Coronary arteries, which supply blood to your heart.
- Peripheral arteries, which supply blood to your limbs and brain.
Can heart disease be prevented?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
While the buildup of plaque can lead to a heart attack or stroke, cardiologist Luke Laffin, MD, says there are steps you can take to prevent heart disease. “Other cardiovascular diseases — heart rhythm and heart valve problems or heart failure — may not be as preventable,” says Dr. Laffin.
By following a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and getting routine screenings, you can tap into the best preventative care for your heart.
4 ways to help lower your risk for heart disease
To help prevent heart disease, Dr. Laffin recommends cultivating heart-healthy habits in these four areas.
Follow a heart-healthy diet
The Mediterranean diet continues to be the crème de la crème of the heart health world. It involves eating foods that are traditionally consumed in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This means a diet loaded with:
- Whole grains.
- Healthy fats, like olive oil.
“A 2018 New England Journal of Medicine study showed that this way of eating goes beyond improving your cholesterol and blood pressure. It also lowers your risk for stroke and heart attack,” Dr. Laffin notes.
Other diets, such as a whole-food, plant-based eating style, may also lower your risk. “But there’s less data suggesting they’re helpful in reducing the risk of strokes and heart attacks,” he adds. “A heart-healthy diet also has to be sustainable. Think 30-plus years into the future. It doesn’t help to go on a restrictive diet, and then two years later, go back to eating junk.”
“The heart is a muscle that needs exercise. Getting the heart rate in an aerobic training zone maintains that heart-pumping, or systolic, function,” says Dr. Laffin. “But more importantly, regular physical activity can lead to lower blood pressure and weight stability.”
Dr. Laffin recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Moderate intensity means you can have a conversation while in action — so a brisk walk or light jog counts.
“And once you have made aerobic physical activity a habit, start adding in some resistance training using light weights or bands,” he says. “Even two to five times a week can help stave off heart disease.”
Don’t despair if a busy weekday schedule prevents you from reaching your fitness goals. Research suggests it’s more about quantity than a time frame. “The so-called weekend warrior gets a similar cardiovascular benefit as individuals who exercise five times a week,” Dr. Laffin points out.
Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis (when your arteries become hardened and narrow because of cholesterol plaque and calcium). It can also increase your risk for a heart attack. But it’s never too late to quit. You can experience the benefits within months.
Your doctor can help you decide which smoking cessation method will work best for you. Quitting or avoiding the habit is an absolute must to protect your heart.
Get regular health screenings
It’s not just lifestyle factors that affect heart disease risk. Genetics can also tip the scales in (or out of) your favor. “For example, if you adjust your lifestyle and get active and strict with what you eat, you can lower bad cholesterol by about 25% to 30%. But the rest is genetically driven,” explains Dr. Laffin. “And we can’t reverse risk factors such as genetics, family history and aging. At a certain point, you may need to take medications to prevent heart disease.”
To stay on top of heart disease factors you can’t change, talk to your healthcare provider regularly, says Dr. Laffin. You may also benefit from cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, which can reduce stroke and heart attack risk.
The American Heart Association (AHA) also recommends the following screenings to stay on top of your heart health:
Blood pressure checks: If your blood pressure is 120/80, you can have it checked yearly. If not, have it checked during regular healthcare visits. It also doesn’t hurt to monitor your blood pressure at home.
Cholesterol: If your levels have been good, you can have a fasting lipoprotein profile done to measure total, HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol every 4 to 6 years. If you have an elevated risk for heart disease and stroke, this will have to be done more often.
Waist circumference: This can be done as needed to help evaluate cardiovascular risk if your BMI is greater than or equal to 25 kg/m2.
Blood glucose test: The AHA says that American Diabetes Association recommends testing for prediabetes and the risk for future diabetes starting at age 45. If the risk is low, testing can be repeated in three-year intervals. If you’re living with prediabetes, you should be tested for Type 2 diabetes every one or two years.
Other strategies to help prevent heart disease
Here are a few other things you can do to protect your heart:
Maintain a healthy weight
A body mass index (BMI) above 30 puts you at risk of developing heart disease. Body fat distribution matters, too. “That central adiposity, also known as a spare tire, increases your risk,” notes Dr. Laffin. “Those fat cells may lead to future cardiovascular disease and problems such as high blood pressure and blood sugar.”
As your weight increases, your blood pressure rises. Excess weight can also put more strain on your heart, lead to blood vessel damage and other health conditions. Losing weight, even as little as 10 pounds, can help manage or prevent high blood pressure.
Manage blood pressure and cholesterol
Too much LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries, pinching off the flow of blood to your heart or brain. “Hypertension (high blood pressure) also increases the risk for heart disease. It’s called ‘the silent killer’ because many people don’t know they have it,” says Dr. Laffin.
While these conditions seem to be connected, both can be controlled. They need to be managed because if your arteries become hardened and narrow because of cholesterol plaque and calcium (atherosclerosis), the heart has to work even harder to pump blood through them. This makes your blood pressure higher. Diet, exercise, not smoking and taking prescribed medicines can all help.
Dr. Laffin says that drinking too much alcohol increases the risk of heart disease. “If you have three or more drinks in one session, your blood pressure will be higher the following day. So it’s best for women to drink no more than one drink a day and men to stick to no more than two.”
Drinking alcohol can make some conditions even worse. These conditions include:
- High blood pressure.
- Heart failure.
A recent study also found that small amounts of alcohol could increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, the most common irregular heartbeat. While some people live with atrial fibrillation for years without problems, it can cause trouble for others. This includes increased risks for stroke, heart failure, blood clots and heart failure.
Chronic stress can set off a chain reaction in your body. When you’re stressed all of the time, your blood pressure might be higher and that can put you at a greater risk for a heart attack or stroke. If you find yourself stressed out a lot, talk to a mental health professional or explore activities that can help you relax.
“Making sure that diabetes is well controlled helps prevent plaque buildup and atherosclerosis (when plaque clogs your arteries),” notes Dr. Laffin. Plaque buildup restricts blood flow to your heart and other organs, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
Get a good night’s sleep
Not getting enough sleep (at least seven hours) could lead to higher blood pressure. And if you’re up against insomnia, that can also lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try getting on a regular bedtime schedule and make sure you’re doing some physical activity during the day. Avoid working out, eating foods that are high in fat and sugar or drinking alcohol before bed.