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Heart-Healthy Living

February 1, 2021

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. But you can do a lot to protect your heart and stay healthy.

Heart-healthy living involves understanding your risk, making choices, and taking steps to reduce your chances of getting heart disease, including coronary heart disease, the most common type. Coronary and other types of heart disease cause heart attacks, but by taking preventive measures, you can lower your risk of developing heart disease and also improve your overall health and well-being.

Learn more about living a heart-healthy lifestyle, our role in research and clinical trials to improve health, and where to find more information.

Understanding your risks

The first step toward heart health is understanding your risk of heart disease. Your risk depends on many factors, some of which are changeable and others that are not. Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. These risk factors may be different for each person.

Preventing heart disease starts with knowing what your risks factors are and what you can do to lower them.

 

Your risk of heart disease is higher if you:
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have high blood cholesterol
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have prediabetes or diabetes
  • Smoke
  • Do not get regular physical activity
  • Have a family history of early heart disease (your father or brother was diagnosed before age 55, or your mother or sister was diagnosed before age 65)
  • Have a history of preeclampsia (a sudden rise in blood pressure and too much protein in the urine during pregnancy)
  • Have unhealthy eating behaviors
  • Are older (age 55 or older for women or age 45 or older for men)

Each risk factor increases a person’s chance of developing heart disease. The more risks you have, the higher your overall risk.

Some risk factors cannot be changed. These include your age, sex, and a family history of early heart disease. But many others can be modified. For example, being more physically active and eating healthy are important steps for your heart health. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important.

Women and Heart Disease

Women generally get heart disease about 10 years later than men do, but it’s still women’s #1 killer. After menopause, women are more likely to get heart disease, in part because estrogen hormone levels drop. Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not gone through menopause. Middle age is also a time when women tend to develop other risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) raises your risk of developing coronary heart disease later in life. It is a risk factor that you can’t control. However, if you’ve had the condition, you should take extra care to monitor your blood pressure and try to lower other heart disease risk factors.

Risk factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol generally don’t have obvious signs or symptoms. A crucial step in determining your risk is to see your doctor for a thorough checkup and risk assessment. Your doctor may use a risk calculator to estimate your risk of having a heart attack, having a stroke, or dying from a heart or blood vessel disease in the next 10 years or throughout your lifetime.

For example, the Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD) Estimatorexternal link considers your cholesterol levels, age, sex, race, and blood pressure. It also factors in whether you smoke or take medicines to manage your high blood pressure or cholesterol.

Your doctor can be an important partner in helping you set and reach goals for heart health. Ask about your risk for heart disease at your annual checkup. Since your risk can change over time, keep asking each year.

Questions to ask your doctor at your annual checkup

  1. What is my risk of developing heart disease?
  2. What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
  3. What are my cholesterol numbers? What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?
  4. What is my body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement? Do I need to lose weight for my health?
  5. What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean I’m at risk for diabetes?
  6. What other screening tests for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for checkups for my heart health?
  7. How can we work together to help me quit smoking?
  8. How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
  9. What is a heart-healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?
  10. How can I tell when I’m having a heart attack?

If you already are being treated for heart disease or heart disease risk factors, discuss your treatment plan with your doctor. Ask questions if you do not understand something or need more information. You may want to write down questions before your appointment as well.

Questions to discuss about your heart disease prevention and treatment plan

  1. How does my treatment compare with what is recommended in the latest guidelines?
  2. How well is my treatment plan working for me?
  3. Are my risk factors for heart disease in a good range or getting better?
  4. If your doctor recommends medicine or a medical procedure, ask about its benefits and risks.
Get Your Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Checked

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and your blood vessels and lead to plaque buildup.

Most adults should have their blood pressure checked at least once a year. If you have high blood pressure, you will likely need to be checked more often. Talk with your doctor about how often you should have your blood pressure checked.

Your doctor will measure your blood pressure to see if it is higher than is recommended. The reading is made up of two numbers, with the systolic number above the diastolic number. These numbers are measures of pressure in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Learn more about getting your blood pressure measured in this video.

Your blood pressure is considered high when you have consistent systolic readings of 140 mm Hg or higher or diastolic readings of 90 mm Hg or higher. Based on research, your doctor may also consider you to have high blood pressure if you are an adult or child age 13 or older who has consistent systolic readings of 130 to 139 mm Hg or diastolic readings of 80 to 89 mm Hg and you have other risk factors for heart disease.

If your blood pressure is high, your doctor will suggest lifestyle changes and may prescribe medicines. Learn more about high blood pressure. You can track your progress with our Tracking Your Numbers worksheet and bring it with you whenever you have your blood pressure taken.

High blood cholesterol

High blood cholesterol is a condition in which your blood has unhealthy levels of cholesterol—a waxy, fat-like substance.

Many factors affect your cholesterol levels. For example, age, sex, eating patterns, and physical activity level can affect your cholesterol levels. Children also can have unhealthy cholesterol levels, especially if they’re overweight or their parents have high blood cholesterol.

A blood test can show whether your cholesterol levels are healthy. Talk with your doctor about having your cholesterol tested and how often you need it tested. Your cholesterol numbers will include total cholesterol, “bad” LDL cholesterol and “good” HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Ask your doctor what your numbers mean for you.

If you have unhealthy cholesterol levels, your doctor may suggest the lifestyle changes discussed in this topic. If heart-healthy lifestyle changes alone are not enough, your doctor may prescribe a statin or other medicine to help manage your cholesterol levels.

Aim for a healthy diet

A healthy weight for adults is usually when the body mass index (BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9. To figure out your BMI, use our online BMI calculator and compare your BMI with the following table. You can also download the BMI calculator app for iPhoneexternal link and Androidexternal link.

BMI chart

Body mass index (BMI) is used to determine whether you are at a healthy weight. Adults are underweight if their BMI is below 18.5 and are at a healthy weight if their BMI is 18.5 to 24.9. Adults are overweight if their BMI is 25 to 29.9 and have obesity if their BMI is 30 or above.

Always talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about what BMI is right for you. Talk to your child’s doctor to determine whether your growing child has a healthy weight, because his or her BMI should be compared to growth charts specific for your child’s age and sex. Following a heart-healthy eating plan and being physically active are some ways to help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. For more information, visit Aim for a Healthy Weight.

Health risks of overweight or obesity

The more body fat that you have and the more you weigh, the more likely you are to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, and certain cancers.

Benefits of maintaining a healthy weight

If you have been diagnosed with overweight or obesity, it’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for losing weight. Health professionals recommend losing 5% to 10% of your initial weight over the course of about 6 months. Even before you reach this goal, a loss of just 3% to 5% of your current weight can lower triglycerides and glucose levels in your blood, as well as your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Losing more than 3% to 5% of your weight can improve blood pressure readings, lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.

Manage stress

Research suggests that an emotionally upsetting event, particularly one involving anger, can serve as a trigger for a heart attack or angina in some people. Stress can contribute to high blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors. Some of the ways people cope with stress—drinking alcohol, using other substances, smoking, or overeating—are not healthy ways to manage stress.

Learning how to manage stress and cope with problems can improve your mental and physical health. Consider healthy stress-reducing activities such as:

  • Talking to a professional counselor
  • Participating in a stress management program
  • Practicing meditation
  • Being physically active
  • Trying relaxation techniques
  • Talking with friends, family, and community or religious support systems

Quit smoking

If you smoke, quit. Smoking can raise your risk of heart disease and heart attack and worsen other heart disease risk factors. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke. Learn more in our video.

If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.

Get Enough Good-Quality Sleep

Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. Not getting enough sleep or good-quality sleep over time can raise your risk for chronic health problems. The amount of sleep you need each day will change over the course of your life. This table reflects recent American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommendations that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has endorsed.

 
Age Recommended Hours of Sleep a Day
Babies 4-12 months 12-16 (including naps)
Children 1-2 years 11-14 (including naps)
Children 3-5 years 10-13 (including naps)
Children 6-12 years 9-12
Teens 13-18 years 8-10
Adults 18 years or older 7-9

 

Sleep and heart health

Sleep helps heal and repair your heart and blood vessels. It also helps:

  • Maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry or full
  • Support healthy growth and development
  • Support a healthy immune system

Over time, not getting enough quality sleep, called sleep deficiency, can raise your risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. 

How to sleep better

You can take steps to improve your sleep habits. First, make sure that you allow yourself enough time to sleep. Learn strategies for getting enough sleep in the Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency Health Topic.

It may help to:

  • Spend time outside every day, if possible, and be physically active.
  • Avoid nicotine and caffeine.
  • Avoid heavy or large meals within a couple hours of bedtime. Also, avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Use the hour before bed for quiet time. Avoid exercise and bright light.
  • Take a hot bath or use relaxation techniques before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark.