30 Crucial Ways to Lower Your Risk of Having a Heart Attack
Know your family history and make lifestyle choices that promote a healthy heart.
Heart disease is one of the most preventable conditions out there, yet it claims more than 800,000 lives every year in the United States alone. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person dies of a heart attack every 40 seconds.
And while many people think that heart attacks occur when the heart stops beating—an entirely different event known as sudden cardiac arrest—they are actually caused by a blockage in the arteries created by a build-up of plaque, says Alexandra Lajoie, MD, a non-invasive cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
The good news is that understanding your family history and making healthy lifestyle choices can significantly reduce your risk of heart attack. Here are some important steps you can take today so you don't miss a beat.
Improve your dental health.
When your dentist impresses upon you the need to floss, that's not just for the sake of your oral hygiene. Research has linked poor dental hygiene with an increased risk of heart attack. A 2018 study in Hypertension even found that periodontal disease—a chronic inflammatory disorder in the gums—can cause high blood pressure, which can damage blood vessel walls and increase the build-up of plaque that blocks blood flow to your heart.
To prevent gum disease and protect your heart, brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day and and make sure to floss daily.
Exercise not only helps you burn calories and fat, but it can also strengthen your heart.
"Exercise promotes positive physiological changes, such as encouraging the heart's arteries to dilate more readily," says Amnon Beniaminovitz, MD, a cardiologist at Manhattan Cardiology. "It also helps your sympathetic nervous system, which controls heart rate and blood pressure, to be less reactive." A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology also suggests that exercise can help reduce the risk of dying from heart attacks and protect heart attack survivors from future heart failure.
The American College of Cardiology (ACC) recommends that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous activity every week. The ACC also advises adults to participate in at least two strength training workouts a week.
Reduce stress and anxiety.
Whether you're dealing with a demanding workload at the office or anxiety in a relationship, chronic stress is taxing on the heart. A 2017 study in The Lancet suggests that emotional stressors can lead to cardiovascular disease, which can put you at risk of having a heart attack.
You can reduce stress in your life by exercising, meditating, journaling, and engaging in social activities with your friends and family. You should also try to put away all electronic devices, including your phone, well before getting into bed.
Talk to a therapist about grief.
If you recently lost a loved one or experienced a traumatic event in your life, it's important to talk to a professional about what you are going through, as deep feelings of grief have been shown to lead to cardiac disease.
Broken heart syndrome—or stress-induced cardiomyopathy—often occurs after the loss of a loved one and has similar symptoms as a heart attack, such as chest pain and irregular heart beat, the American Heart Association (AHA) says. And while it doesn't actually result from a blockage in the arteries, the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn't function as well as it should.
Feeling a little lonely? Connecting with old friends or people in your community is just what the doctor ordered. A 2018 analysis in Heart suggests that those who don't have social relationships are at an increased risk for developing heart disease and stroke. Connect with local groups and communities that fit your hobbies and interests, like book clubs, hiking groups, and cooking classes. Even if you can't connect physically, there are virtual ways to stay social.
Stop smoking and vaping.
Smoking cigarettes can raise your blood pressure and the chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart. The Mayo Clinic also notes that cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, increasing your heart rate. "Stopping smoking will single-handedly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 50 percent," says Sanjiv Patel, MD, interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center.
Despite what was initially believed by consumers, it turns out that e-cigarettes aren't any better you. The ACC reports that e-cigarette users are 56 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 30 percent more likely to suffer a stroke. If you're having trouble quitting smoking, talk to your doctor about recommending a smoking cessation medication or to help you develop a plan to kick the habit once and for all.
Limit your alcohol intake.
Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk for cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation—also known as an irregular heart beat—the AHA reports. To help you lower your risk of heart disease, the CDC says it's best to avoid alcohol altogether or limit your intake to one alcoholic drink daily for women and up to two for men.
Get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health issues, including weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure—all of which are risk factors for heart disease. "Poor sleep leads to an increase in stress hormones, which can lead to an elevation of blood pressure through their direct effects of increasing arterial stiffness and heart rate," Beniaminovitz says.
Talk to your doctor if you have trouble falling or staying asleep at night, as this could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
Know your family history.
If you have a family member who has had a heart attack, you are at a greater risk of having one yourself. That's why it's so important to share this information with your doctor so they can recommend some lifestyle changes and screenings that can help you get ahead of any potential problems.
"Everyone should have basic cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, but if you have a family history, your doctor might recommend a thorough cardiac evaluation," Lajoie says.
And get an annual physical.
Be sure to get a yearly check-up with your primary care physician to get routine cholesterol and blood pressure screenings. Some doctors also perform an electrocardiogram, or EKG—a test that measures the electrical activity of your heartbeat.
"Patients that check in with their doctor will be able to have their risk factors of coronary artery disease assessed at this time," says Nicole Weinberg, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center. "You will have an EKG, blood pressure check, and your fasting cholesterol checked. If these are assessed at least once a year, then there are less surprises as it relates to these 'silent killers.'"
Assemble a healthcare team.
If you have a family history of heart disease or are living with a chronic health condition that puts you at risk for heart attack, it's important to create a healthcare team of physicians and maybe even a registered dietitian and personal trainer to help you maintain a healthy weight and diet, and to stay on top of your screenings.
Cut back on saturated fat.
Fattier cuts of beef, lamb, pork, butter, and cheese are some foods that are naturally high in saturated fat, which is something important to monitor for your heart health.
"Eating foods that contain saturated fats can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood, and high levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk for heart disease," Beniaminovitz says. With that, the AHA recommends that you limit your saturated fat intake to no more than five to six percent of your daily calories—which comes down to 13 grams or 120 calories in a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
Beniaminovitz also recommends limiting the amount trans fat you consume. Found in processed foods like crackers and cookies, these unhealthy fats raise your bad LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL—or good—cholesterol, putting you at risk for cardiac arrest.
But fill up on healthy fats.
Cutting back on saturated fats and trans fats is essential for optimal heart health, but it doesn't mean that all fats are off limits. Consuming healthy fats—such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and nuts—can help boost your heart health, according to the AHA. These foods are excellent sources of monounsaturated fats that can help lower bad cholesterol.
Moreover, polyunsaturated fats—like omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, walnuts, and soybeans—provide your body with fats it can't produce itself, but are crucial to heart health. In fact, a 2011 study in the journal Hypertension suggests that diets low in fish and polyunsaturated fats can increase risk for cardiovascular disease.
Reduce your sodium intake.
Sodium pulls water into your blood vessels, which causes your blood pressure to rise, which Lajole notes can lead to heart attack if not treated properly. "High blood pressure is a stressor on the heart, so it has to work harder to pump blood through the body," she says.
Bread, cheese, cold cuts, canned soups, and packaged snacks are common culprits of high sodium, so try to limit these foods in your repertoire. To help you stay on track, refer to the USDA dietary guidelines, which say to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily.
And ease off sugar.
Along with excess sodium and saturated fat, sugar is one of the worst things for your heart. In fact, the AHA recommends women limit their daily sugar intake to no more than six teaspoons of added sugar and men limit theirs to nine teaspoons.
"Consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation—both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease," Beniaminovitz says. Overdoing it on sugar can also contribute to obesity and lead to diseases like diabetes. And it's not always so obvious which foods are high in sugar—iced tea, granola bars, peanut butter, and salad dressings are all sneaky sources of the sweet stuff.
You can help keep your blood sugar levels in check by eating more vegetables, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods.
Eat more fiber.
Research has shown that diets high in fiber—complete with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and other fiber-rich foods—can reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease. A 2019 review in The Lancet shows that consuming 25 to 29 grams of fiber daily can help protect against cardiovascular diseases.
Eat more whole grains.
Whole grains—like quinoa, farro, brown rice, and rolled oats—are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And according to a 2018 study in the European Journal of Nutrition, increasing your consumption of oats and oat bran can help reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, which promotes good heart health and helps prevent potential problems.
Eat lean proteins.
The AHA recommends including a 3-ounce serving—about the size of the palm of your hand—of protein in every meal. The best way to incorporate this into your diet is through lean cuts of protein—like sirloin, ground beef, salmon, turkey, and chicken breast—or plant-based proteins, such as soy, beans, and legumes. These protein-rich foods not only offer important vitamins and nutrients essential to a healthy heart, but they can also help curb cravings for processed foods and reduce your intake of saturated fats.
And get enough folic acid.
Eating foods that are high in folic acid—a type of vitamin B found in spinach, citrus, beans, cereal, rice, and pasta—may reduce your risk of having a heart attack, according to 2014 research published in the journal PLOS One. Vitamin B can lower homocysteine, a compound in the body that is responsible for blood clotting—high levels of which may lead to an increased probability of heart attack.
Address other health conditions.
Heart disease often goes hand-in-hand with other health conditions because they share many of the same risk factors. For example, having uncontrolled blood sugar levels from type 2 diabetes puts you at increased risk for heart attack. According to 2019 research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, type 2 diabetes can lead to structural abnormalities in the heart and poorer quality of life.
Maintain a healthy weight.
If you're overweight or obese, losing weight will improve your overall health and decrease your risk for heart attack, and other serious forms of heart disease. People who are obese are particularly at risk for coronoary artery disease, which happens when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become stiff and narrow, and peripheral artery disease, which affects the arteries in the arms, legs, and feet, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Take medications as directed.
Whether you are taking medications for hypertension or high cholesterol, be sure to take them as directed. Your doctor will recommend a certain dosage based on your specific state of health and lifestyle, so it's important to discuss any changes you make—or plan on making—relevant to either of those factors, as they could affect how your body responds to a particular medication. You can also ask your pharmacist about how your medications may interact with your diet and other drugs or supplements you may already be taking.
Listen to your body.
"If you normally run a mile without any symptoms, but now you can't run past one city block, you need to see your doctor," Weinberg says. "Symptoms of coronary artery disease are not always chest pain or shortness of breath and so that is why using your regular exercise as a barometer is key."
Consider post-menopausal risk factors.
When women enter menopause, the amount of estrogen—which, the AHA says, helps protect the inner layers of the artery wall and keeps blood vessels flexible—they produce begins to decline, which can eventually lead to serious heart conditions. "We tend to see an increase in cardiac events during this time," LaJoie says.
Other heart attack risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol also increase with age, so it's crucial for women to talk to their doctors about what preventive measures they can take.
Manage thyroid conditions.
Your thyroid gland produces the hormones that help control how fast your heart beats and burns calories. And when you have hyperthyroidism—a condition that causes your body to produce thyroid hormone in excess—you face an increased risk of atrial fibrillation. When left untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.
Stay healthy during pregnancy.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in pregnant and postpartum women in the United States, according to a 2019 research paper published in Obstetrics and Gynecology. As a precaution, the study says, women who have family histories of cardiac disease and are planning on getting pregnant should consult a doctor to learn how to adopt healthy habits that'll reduce their risks of having a heart issue themselves.
Adopt a dog.
Research shows that having a furry four-legged friend by your side can help you live longer, especially if you've had a heart attack. A 2019 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes even suggests that owning a dog can help people who have had a heart attack recover more successfully by sparking an increase in physical activity and providing them with emotional and social support.
Make fun of yourself.
Having a sense of humor and being able to relax enough to laugh at yourself or at a good joke has been found to make your blood vessels function better. How? Well, according to a 2005 study from the University of Maryland Medical Center, laughing makes the inner lining of blood vessels expand and increases blood flow.
Get a flu shot.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 found that your chances of heart attack are increased by six times during the first seven days after being diagnosed with the flu. So if you are at risk of having a heart attack, make sure to get a flu shot each year.
Eat dinner before 7 p.m.
If you want to practice habits that promote good heart health, avoid eating dinner after 7 p.m., says a 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Researchers found that those who waited until around 11 p.m. for their last bit of food had higher body weight, and increased amounts of cholesterol and triglycerides in their blood—all of which can increase your risk of heart problems.
Additional reporting by Adam Bible.