Not all people are equally at risk of developing heart disease. Some are naturally less vulnerable through their genetic make-up. Many more stay healthy by practicing a health-conscious lifestyle. A close connection between lifestyle and heart health is supported by the fact that people who are less likely to suffer from heart disease have similar profiles.
Not Everyone Is at Risk of Developing Heart Disease
Both Genetics and Lifestyle-Factors Play Major Roles
Maintaining a healthy weight range
Staying within a healthy weight range is crucially important. High amounts of body fat force the heart to work harder. Triglycerides and LDL (a.k.a. “bad cholesterol”) become elevated and HDL (the “good cholesterol”) decreases. Blood pressure rises and Type 2 diabetes is likely to develop. If you have problems maintaining a healthy weight range, this is where you should start improving your health. (For more information about weight loss and weight management, go to “Succeeding at Weight Loss.”)
Maintaining HDL cholesterol levels over 40 mg/dl
HDL, the “good cholesterol,” helps cleaning blood vessels from plaque that accumulates there over time. Your lab tests should show HDL level over 40 mg/ dl to ensure the health of your blood vessels.
Keeping blood pressure low
High blood pressure is often called “the silent killer,” because it can lead to sometimes fatal heart attack and stroke without showing any prior symptoms. People who are overweight or obese should have their blood pressure closely monitored, even if they don’t experience any particular symptoms. A “normal” reading of blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg or less (millimeters of mercury).
Maintaining normal homocysteine levels
Homocysteine is an amino acid found in the blood. If elevated, it is an indicator for increased risk of heart disease. Certain vitamins can help the body eliminate homocysteine, like folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.
Besides poor eating habits and long periods of stress, smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease. Smoking has the potential to lower HDL (“good cholesterol”), raise LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and elevate blood pressure. You have heard this many times before, but it can’t be emphasized enough: If you don’t smoke, don’t start! If you do smoke, do everything you can to quit as soon a possible!
Drinking alcohol – if at all, only in moderation
Consuming alcohol in moderation may have certain health benefits. “Moderate” drinking means two drinks for men and one for women per day. One drink equals 12 fl. oz. of beer, 5 fl. oz. of wine or 1.5 fl. oz. of distilled liquor. If a little is good, more is not better. In fact, “binge drinking” (having multiple drinks) can be dangerous. Besides the usual effects of drunkenness, excessive drinking may cause liver damage and contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, triglyceride elevation as well as the risk of heart failure and stroke.
Eating a diet low in saturated fats
Reducing saturated fats in one’s food is an important component of a heart-healthy diet. This means consuming less fat from meat and dairy products as well as from tropical oils, like palm oil and coconut oil. Better choices are fish, lean meats and poultry and nonfat or low-fat dairy products. All of these are rich sources of protein with lower fat content.
Eating a diet low in cholesterol
Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products. A diet rich in red meat, liver, egg yolk and certain seafood, like lobster, shrimp, squid and caviar, can increase cholesterol levels in the blood. Over time, cholesterol can accumulate and cause narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis, also referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”
Limiting dietary sodium (salt)
Sodium is a major cause of high blood pressure, mainly because it is present in most processed and packaged foods. Moreover, eating large amounts of salt can interfere with the effectiveness of blood pressure lowering medications. Even healthy adults should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day or less (one level teaspoon of table salt equals 2,300 mg sodium.)
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains
A diet rich in fresh produce and whole grains, but low in fat, sugar and salt, is generally considered to be “heart healthy.” Fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and brown rice contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, both of which are excellent promoters of heart health. They also provide soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps with the removal of toxins.
Eating a diet rich in soluble fiber
Fiber is the non-digestible part of plant foods. There are two types of fiber − soluble and insoluble – and they function very differently. Soluble fiber helps to lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and blood sugar levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, dried beans and peas, barley, rice, and all fruits and vegetables.
Eating seafood and fish oil
Fish, especially the deep-sea fatty kind, like salmon and tuna, is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is an important component for lowering triglycerides and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Regular intake of fish oil also reduces the risk of blood clots forming and inflammation. If your diet does not include seafood in sufficient amounts, it is advisable to take a daily dose of fish oil in form of supplements.
Not all stress experiences are bad. Sometimes, stress can be invigorating, even addictive, depending on the situation. But often, stress is anxiety provoking. When people are continuously exposed to high levels of negative stress without relief, high blood pressure can develop as a result, which eventually can turn into a chronic condition. Smoking, drinking or mindless eating to cope with stress only add to the health risks.
The best way to manage stress efficiently is through physical exercise. Stress is a natural response to threats, which is also known as the “fight-or-flight-syndrome.” It is meant to help us survive in dangerous situations, either by defending ourselves or by way of escape. To facilitate either one, the body releases a powerful hormone called adrenaline. Short term, this is a great asset. But long term and without relief, this state of heightened alertness can become a serious health hazard. Rigorous physical exercise simulates best the natural fight-or-flight response and therefore diminishes the negative effects.
Pre-menopausal women have a lower risk of developing heart disease, because of the natural estrogen hormone their ovaries produce. By contrast, post-menopausal women and women who have had their ovaries surgically removed, no longer have the protection of estrogen and may encounter the same risk factors as men.
Making daily exercise a priority
Equally as important for good heart health as all dietary guidelines is a regular exercise regimen. We all have heard this time and again: A sedentary lifestyle is not healthy. Our bodies need to move. Yet, despite of better knowledge, most people do not get enough exercise on a regular basis. Exercising raises HDL (“good cholesterol”) and lowers mildly elevated blood pressure. It also improves circulation, strengthens the heart, helps with weight control and reduces stress.
Many people blame “lack of time” for not exercising enough. To all those I would say, you must get your priorities straight. Regular exercise makes you physically fit and gives you more energy. On the other hand, neglecting your body’s need for activity will eventually lead to serious health problems.