Keeping your heart healthy is of paramount importance as you age. Cardiovascular disease killed more than 800,000 Americans in 2013 alone, or about 2,200 people a day. And it’s not just the fellas over 65—the average age of a man’s first heart attack—who need to be worried. Premature coronary artery disease hits up to 10% of men before age 45, and today’s average 50-year-old has a roughly 50% risk of developing heart disease as he gets older.
But you can drop that risk considerably, and add years to your life, by simply identifying the major indicators of poorly functioning heart and taking action.
According to the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which analyzed more than 3,500 men over several decades, men free of six big factors—high total cholesterol, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking—had only a 5% chance of developing cardiovascular disease by age 95. But if you hit two or more of those factors? Your chances of heart trouble jumps to a whopping 69%.
Here are the best ways to make sure your heart doesn’t pose any risk—now or in the future. And if you feel as though your ticker isn’t in top form, here’s how to Build a Heart of Steel.
The number one way to monitor your heart and its strength is relatively simple, especially with the abundance of fitness trackers and smart watches out there: check your heart rate.
If you have a tracker it’s simple to check it, just rest for 10–15 minutes (lying down is best) and then see what your wearable says. DYIers can take two fingers and rest them on the inside of your wrist feeling for the vein and pulse. Once you’ve got it, take a watch with a second hand and count the number of beats for 20 seconds and then multiply by three to get your rate.
For an adult man, your resting heart rate should between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Well-trained athletes usually have a rate around 40 to 60 beats per minute.
If you don’t have a tracker, we’ve got you covered with the 5 Most Futuristic Fitness Trackers.
Making sure your blood is coursing around your veins at the optimal force—to and from the heart—is another specific way you can check in on how your ticker is doing. The best way to find out is when you go to your doctors for your physical, though most pharmacies have an automated machine that will tell you your pressure for free, or you can buy an electronic device to monitor yourself at home.
The most recent recommendations from 2014 say adults under 60 should post numbers that are less than 140/90 mm Hg. If you’re numbers are off, check out 10 Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure.
Next time you pop by your doctor’s office for an annual checkup, make sure you get an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). It’s not usually part of a physical unless you have symptoms of heart disease, but you can request one from your doctor.
This simple and painless test measures how long it takes an electrical wave to go through the heart, which lets you know if your heartbeat is normal, slow, fast or irregular. To get one you have to take your shirt off and then lie down on the table. Several sticky electrodes will be placed on your chest and on each arm and leg. Then those are attached by wire to the EKG machine and will track your heartbeat while you lie still for about a minute.
If you want to learn more about talking to your doctor, don’t miss Best Life interview with Dr. Oz.
A consistently sluggish and rundown feeling can be a sign of something seriously wrong with your heart. When you are often fatigued, it may mean the heart isn’t able to pump enough blood to give your body the nutrients it needs possibly because of clogged or hardened arteries. So as long as you feel peppy and on point most of the time (and aren’t depressed) your heart is probably pumping powerfully and the arterial highways are free of congestion—then learn How to Stay Lean for Life: The Workout.
These numbers can tell you a lot about how your heart is performing so be sure to get them checked at least once every five years unless you have a major risk factor like heart disease, diabetes, kidney problems, or other conditions. This is another test that you should get at your physical, but intrepid and curious folks can buy home kits to find out where you stand—though most require you to prick your finger for a bit of blood, so maybe wait until you see your doc unless you’ve already been diagnosed with high cholesterol. Total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL with LDL, or “bad,” should be less than 100 mg/dL and HDL, or “good,” should be less than 40 mg/dL.
For more about taking control of your cholesterol, check out the Ultimate Nutrition Secrets for Men.
How well your heart can handle stress brought on by exercise can be measured simply at your doctor’s office with a treadmill and machines that monitor heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, EKG, and fatigue. The tasking test will determine how well your heart is working to pump blood through your body.
Testers will look at whether or not your blood pressure dips too low or goes too high, any arrhythmias, or heartbeat fluctuations, will be noted (though they usually aren’t of clinical significance), and you the workload you are able to stand will be record in “METS,” which is metabolic equivalents, or a physiological measure expressing the energy cost of exercise. If you reach 80% of the age-predicted maximum heart rate (220 – your age) during your test, that’s considered a good result, and 90% or better is considered excellent. If you’re numbers look good, check out the other 99 Ways to Live to be 100 years-old.
Having diabetes or even just high glucose, or blood sugar, levels over time can cause damage to your nerves and blood vessels, which can lead to increased risk of having heart disease or getting a stroke. To make sure you are in the right area, get checked once during your physical, and then every three years, after you are over age 45.
If you are overly concerned about this number, there are simple blood glucose tests you can get online that diabetics use everyday and are very accurate, but again you will have to prick your finger for a few drops of blood. A normal result is 100 mg/dL after eight hours of not eating.
If your glucose is higher than you thought, here’s our primer for phasing sugar out of your life.
This protein, also called CRP, can be an early indicator of inflammation in your body, which if is in the arteries, could lead to heart disease, heart attack, or stroke. A recent study showed that high levels of CRP predicted a three-fold greater risk of having a heart attack. Figuring out levels of this protein is usually only done at your doctors if you are at high risk for heart disease and have a high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or are a smoker. If it’s below 3.0 mg/dL then congratulations, your heart is not inflamed.
For the fitness fanatics out there, you can really test your heart rate yourself on a treadmill, spin bike, or elliptical by exercising for as hard as you can for three minutes, then check your heart rate. If it’s close to 70% or 85% of the max for your age (220 – your age), then you’re right on target. For our recs for the best cardio machines in any gym, see here.
A strong and healthy heart means that it can slow down quickly and smoothly. To test it, right after the most intense exercise you do, check your heart rate. Make a note and then stop exercising totally, and check it again two minutes later. Numbers that are at least 80% or greater than your maximum heart rate, or show that your heart rate declined by 66 or more beats in those last two minutes, mean you’re in great shape—and if you’re looking for a killer workout, here’s the single best one to Banish Your Belly… And Boredom.