Preventing heart disease (and all cardiovascular diseases) means making smart choices now that will pay off the rest of your life.
Lack of exercise, a poor diet and other unhealthy habits can take their toll over the years. Anyone at any age can benefit from simple steps to keep their heart healthy during each decade of life. Here’s how:
All Age Groups
No matter what your age, everyone can benefit from a healthy diet and adequate physical activity.
• Choose a healthy eating plan. The food you eat can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish (preferably oily fish-at least twice per week), nuts, legumes and seeds and try eating some meals without meat. Select lower fat dairy products and poultry (skinless). Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and red meat. If you choose to eat meat, select the leanest cuts available.
• Be physically active. You can slowly work up to at least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) every week or 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity (e.g., jogging, running) or a combination of both every week. Learn the American Heart Association’s Guidelines for Physical Activity in Adults and in Children.
Additionally, on two or more days a week you need muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest shoulders, and arms). Children should get at least 60 minutes of activity every day.
•It’s never too early or too late to learn the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Not everyone experiences sudden numbness with a stroke or severe chest pain with a heart attack. And heart attack symptoms in women can be different than men.
In Your 20s
Getting smart about your heart early on puts you far ahead of the curve. The things you do — and don’t—are a tell-tale sign of how long and how well you’re going to live, said Richard Stein, M.D. “There’s no one I know that said, ‘I felt better being sedentary. I felt better eating a terrible diet,’” said Stein, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. “All these things actually make you feel better while they help you.”
• Find a doctor and have regular wellness exams. Healthy people need doctors, too. Establishing a relationship with a physician means you can start heart-health screenings now. Talk to your doctor about your diet, lifestyle and checking your blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, blood sugar and body mass index.
You may also need your blood sugar checked if you are pregnant, overweight or have diabetes. Knowing where your numbers stand early makes it easier to spot a possible change in the future.
• Be physically active. It’s a lot easier to be active and stay active if you start at a young age. “If you’re accustomed to physical activity, you’ll sustain it,” Stein said. Keep your workout routine interesting by mixing it up and finding new motivators.
• Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. If you picked up smoking as a teen, it’s time to quit smoking. Even exposure to secondhand smoke poses a serious health hazard. Nonsmokers are up to 30 percent more likely to develop heart disease or lung cancer from secondhand smoke exposure at home or work, according to a U.S. Surgeon General report.
In Your 30s
Juggling family and career leaves many adults with little time to worry about their hearts. Here are some ways to balance all three.
• Make heart-healthy living a family affair. Create and sustain heart-healthy habits in your kids and you’ll reap the benefits, too. Spend less time on the couch and more time on the move. Explore a nearby park on foot or bike. Shoot some hoops or walk the dog.
Plant a vegetable and fruit garden together in the yard, and invite your kids into the kitchen to help cook.
• Know your family history. Shake down your family tree to learn about heart health. Having a relative with heart disease increases your risk, and more so if the relative is a parent or sibling.
That means you need to focus on risk factors you can control by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthier.
Also, keep your doctor informed about any heart problems you learn about in your family.
• Tame your stress. Long-term stress causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls.
Learning stress management techniques not only benefits your body, but also your quality of life. Try deep breathing exercises and find time each day to do something you enjoy.
Giving back through volunteering also does wonders for knocking out stress.
In Your 40s
If heart health hasn’t been a priority, don’t worry. Healthy choices you make now can strengthen your heart for the long haul. Understand why you need to make a lifestyle change and have the confidence to make it. Then, tackle them one at a time. “Each success makes you more confident to take on the next one,” said Stein, an American Heart Association volunteer.
• Watch your weight. You may notice your metabolism slowing down in your 40s. But you can avoid weight gain by following a heart-healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. The trick is to find a workout routine you enjoy.
If you need motivation to get moving, find a workout buddy.
• Have your blood sugar level checked. In addition to blood pressure checks and other heart-health screenings, you should have a fasting blood glucose test by the time you’re 45.
This first test serves as a baseline for future tests, which you should have every three years. Testing may be done earlier or more often if you are overweight, diabetic or at risk for becoming diabetic.
• Don’t brush off snoring. Listen to your sleeping partner’s complaints about your snoring.
One in five adults has at least mild sleep apnea, a condition that causes pauses in breathing during sleep. If not properly treated, sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
In Your 50s
Unlike the emergence of wrinkles and gray hair, what you can’t see as you get older is the impact aging has on your heart. So starting in the 50s, you need to take extra steps.
• Eat a healthy diet. It’s easy to slip into some unhealthy eating habits, so refresh your eating habits by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish (preferably oily fish-at least twice per week), nuts, legumes and seeds and try eating some meals without meat.
• Learn the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Now is the time to get savvy about symptoms.
Not everyone experiences sudden numbness with a stroke or severe chest pain with a heart attack. And heart attack symptoms in women can be different than men.
• Follow your treatment plan. By now, you may have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or other conditions that increase your risk for heart disease or stroke.
Lower your risk by following your prescribed treatment plan, including medications and lifestyle and diet changes.
In Your 60s+
With age comes an increased risk for heart disease. Your blood pressure, cholesterol and other heart-related numbers tend to rise. Watching your numbers closely and managing any health problems that arise — along with the requisite healthy eating and exercise — can help you live longer and better.
• Have an ankle-brachial index test. Starting in your 60s, it’s a good idea to get an ankle-brachial index test as part of a physical exam.
The test assesses the pulses in the feet to help diagnose peripheral artery disease (PAD), a lesser-known cardiovascular disease in which plaque builds up in the leg arteries.
• Watch your weight. Your body needs fewer calories as you get older. Excess weight causes your heart to work harder and increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Exercising regularly and eating smaller portions of nutrient-rich foods may help you maintain a healthy weight.
• Learn the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Heart attack symptoms in women can be different than men. Knowing when you’re having a heart attack or stroke means you’re more likely to get immediate help. Quick treatment can save your life and prevent serious disability.