10-Step Do-It-Yourself Heart Makeover

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10-Step Do-It-Yourself Heart Makeover

Keeping your heart in good physical shape plays a significant role in life expectancy.

1  Is Your Heart Telling You It’s Time for a Makeover?

The physical shape of your heart may make all the difference between a long, healthy life or one faced with chronic illness. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), claiming about 610,000 lives each year. While heart disease becomes more likely with age, it is preventable. “Growing old is simply a number,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a cardiologist and director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “How well and efficiently the heart can deliver oxygen throughout the body is one of the key pieces to truly maintaining youth,” she adds.

“Women develop heart disease at an older age,” says Mindy Gentry, MD, a cardiologist at WellStar Kennestone hospital in Marietta, Georgia. “But when younger, premenopausal women get heart disease, it has a worse course.”

It’s never too early or too late to find out what shape your heart’s in, and to make the changes that could prevent heart disease. Follow these 10 steps for a healthy heart makeover.

2  Take a ‘Before’ Picture of Your Heart Health

Ask yourself: Are my heart’s vital stats where I want them to be? Here are the stats you should know:

Rate and rhythm Telltale signs of a healthy heart are a steady heart rhythm and a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm) — or, if you’re athletic, as low as 40 bpm. Take your pulse by placing your fingers on the inside of your wrist, elbow, or side of your neck. If your heart rate is too fast, speeds up or slows down, or skips beats, check with your doctor to rule out a heart rhythm disorder (like atrial fibrillation).

Blood pressure A healthy blood pressure reading is at or lower than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Check yours with an at-home blood pressure monitor or at a neighborhood drugstore, or ask your doctor to measure it. High blood pressure (also called hypertension) puts a strain on your arteries and a burden on your heart that can have deadly consequences, warns the American Heart Association’s (AHA) online health assessment “My Life Check.”

Cholesterol Ask your doctor for a routine cholesterol test. If your total cholesterol is higher than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), fat and plaque (made up of cholesterol, cellular waste, calcium and fibrin) may be building up in your blood vessels. High cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and puts you at risk for stroke, heart attack, or heart failure.

Inflammation A significant cause of heart disease, inflammation can be measured with a blood test for C-reactive protein (CRP). “When CRP is less than 1 milligram per liter (mg/L), inflammation levels are very low, and the risk of heart disease or a heart attack is extremely low,” says cardiologist John Day, MD, medical director of Intermountain Heart Rhythm Specialists in Salt Lake City and past president of the Heart Rhythm Society. “Levels of 1 to 3 are at intermediate risk. If CRP is higher than 3, people are at very high risk of heart disease or a heart attack,” he says.

3  Calculate Your 10-Year Risk of Heart Attack

Once you know your numbers, you can tap into one of the online calculators that estimate heart disease risk. “Whether or not the doctor calculates it in the office, it can be a jumping off point for a discussion about risks,” says Dr. Gentry.

The Reynolds Risk Score predicts your 10-year risk of heart attack, stroke, or other major cardiovascular disease. You’ll answer questions about your age, gender, total cholesterol, HDL (“good”) cholesterol, smoker status, systolic blood pressure (the first number of your blood pressure), CRP level, whether you take blood pressure meds, as well as family history info.

The AHA’s Heart Attack Risk Calculator asks for the above info but also adds questions about your weight and waist size. In addition, it shows how your heart attack risk can go down if you change certain risk factors (like stopping smoking, for example).

The Mayo Clinic’s Heart Disease Risk Calculator asks questions about your medical history as above, but also about your diet and level of physical activity. Following your risk score are recommendations on ways to reduce your risk.

If you have symptoms like chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, or dizziness, don’t just use the online tools — see your doctor, says Gentry.

4  Stop Smoking and Avoid Polluted Air

“I’d rather people stop smoking than anything else,” says Gentry. Smoking or breathing in secondhand smoke can hurt your heart. Toxins in smoke damage the blood vessel linings, compromise blood flow, cause inflammation, and can lead to a heart attack. Particulate matter in air pollution can also raise your risk of heart diseases like heart failure, atrial fibrillation, heart attack, and stroke. By limiting your exposure, you allow your blood vessels and heart to heal.

“When we look at the incidence of heart disease, 80 to 90 percent of the time it’s due to lifestyle choices,” says Dr. Steinbaum. These age us internally and put us at risk for heart disease. “With a poor diet, excess alcohol, smoking, stress, and a lack of sleep, we are promoting stress hormones, cholesterol, high blood pressure, and inflammation — all of which lead to aging of the arteries,” she explains.

5 Get Moving for a Healthy Heart

People who are physically active tend to live longer, partly because activity limits buildup of plaque — cholesterol and damaged cells — in your arteries. Getting regular exercise can not only control unhealthy cholesterol levels and lower high blood pressure, it can also help with inflammation, says Dr. Day. “Regular physical activity significantly reduces inflammation unless exercise becomes extreme,” he says.

If you have signs of heart disease already, your doctor may order heart tests like an exercise stress test, possibly a nuclear stress test (which carries a risk of radiation exposure), a heart scan for a calcium score, or a blood test to rule out coronary artery disease (CAD) — the leading cause of death in men and women, according to the American College of Cardiology.

“First of all, talk with your physician about the overall state of your heart health to be sure it’s okay to exercise,” says Gentry. Once you get the okay from your doctor, aim for 30 minutes of exercise each day unless you’re advised to do less. Although your instinct may be to avoid exercise to protect an ailing heart, even people with heart disease need to stay active. “If the heart is not conditioned, over time, it requires more effort to deliver blood and oxygen to the body,” Steinbaum says. “We know this occurs as our heart rate increases at rest,” she says, and “our ability to exercise requires [us to have] a higher heart rate, quicker.”

6  Cut Back on Added Sugar

We need to eat the right foods to minimize inflammation,” says Day. “In particular, sugar and foods that behave like sugar in the body — like refined grains, processed foods, and white rice — significantly increase the inflammatory process inside the body.” Although the evidence that sugar is a risk factor for heart disease has been downplayed, as a study published in September 2016 in JAMA Internal Medicine notes, too much of these simple carbs can be a problem for your heart.

Cutting back on added sugar may be a good move, because too much sugar raises triglycerides, lowers HDL cholesterol, raises blood pressure, and can cause diabetes, says Day. “Fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fish have all been shown to reduce inflammation,” he adds, and less inflammation means lower CRP (an inflammation marker) and a healthier heart.

Read on: 10-Step Do-It-Yourself Heart Makeover | Everyday Health

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