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From bad sleep to stress to your diet... It really can hurt your heart and wreck your health.
There is good news and bad news when it comes to your risk of developing heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The bad news is that there are several factors that raise a person’s risk for getting heart disease. Some cannot be controlled, such as family history.
However, there is still a lot one can do to prevent heart disease and, in some cases, even reverse it. Some of these measures, despite being difficult to start doing, are obvious: getting active, eating, losing weight, don't over-consume food or alcohol, and stop smoking.
Here are habits that the current research advises us to avoid if we want to maintain good cardiovascular health.
Being a couch potato
Not moving enough, especially on a regular basis, is risky for your health. Inactivity has been linked to cognitive decline, more frailty, and even an increased risk of death. Fortunately, almost any sort of activity that raises your heart rate is a good place to start.
It’s important to move your body and elevate your heart rate for at least 150 minutes every week. You should also throw in twice-weekly strength training sessions, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
That may seem like a lot of exercise, but it doesn't need to be done all at once. As long as you get your heart rate up for 15 minutes or more at a time, it counts. Also, "activity" doesn't just mean a walk or a gym class or a bike ride. It could be gardening, shopping, walking the dog or cleaning.
"You don’t have to go from doing nothing to running marathons," says Quentin Youmans, M.D., a cardiology fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "In fact, the biggest leap in benefit comes from doing nothing to doing something. Just start by dedicating yourself to doing some activity every day to get your body moving."
However, a 2014 survey found that over a quarter (27.5 percent) of people older than 50 said they did no physical activity (other than their job) in the past month. Among the older age group — 75 years and up — just over one-third (35.3 percent) of people said the same thing.
Drinking too much alcohol
"Not everyone recognizes the connection between heart health and alcohol," Youmans says. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and cause irregular heartbeats. Alcohol can "even have a direct toxic effect on the heart,”
according to Youmans.
Too much can lead to heart failure or a weakening of the heart, but how much is too much? Women should have no more than one drink per day, and men should limit their intake to two drinks or fewer, according to HHS guidelines.
Limiting your sleep
Not getting your seven (or eight)hours of shut-eye a night will slowly, but quite reliably, damage your health, including your heart.
Poor-quality sleep or untreated sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure and affect heart health. Lack of sleep has also been associated with diabetes and weight gain, which negatively affect heart health, too. In fact, sleep apnea can cause abnormal heart rhythms.
Choosing unhealthy foods
A heart-healthy diet includes a panoply of delicious options: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts and whole grains. Data suggest that a so-called Mediterranean diet — mostly plants, with “good fats” like walnuts, almonds, olive oil and avocados — supports good heart health. This style of eating limits red meat; fish and poultry are OK, as long as you keep these proteins to under 5.5 ounces per day.
Swap sodas for water — a lot of water. Watch out for processed, sugary and fried foods, and be mindful of what you eat and drink at restaurants. Food full of saturated and trans fats, salt and cholesterol is best reserved for special occasions, rather than on the daily.
Avoiding high sodium items is a key part of any healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends that most adults consume fewer than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, with 2,300 mg as an upper limit.
Try not to "overindulge with food," Youmans warns. "We all love that slice of pizza or juicy hamburger, and, in fact, occasionally, those foods can be OK. But when our diets consist of foods high in fats and sugars all the time, it starts to affect our heart health negatively. A Mediterranean diet is a great alternative,” he says, adding that it can be tasty.
Living as a lone wolf
It's so important to have a group of friends and family to lean on. Unfortunately, it's not as common as you may think. More than one-third of adults 45 and older are lonely, and nearly one-fourth of those 65-plus are considered to be socially isolated, research shows. This circumstance is often terrible for your health, including your heart.
It is crucial to find a group of people who will support you and make you feel fulfilled. Try to seek community resources and support groups to help you with lifestyle changes. It helps if you work to build a network of support to help you along the way.
Whether you vape or smoke cigarettes or cigars, tobacco is terrible for your health. Secondhand tobacco smoke is, too. Most people know this, but what you may not realize is that tobacco doesn't just ravage your lungs and cause cancer: Your heart is also a victim.
Tobacco damages blood vessels and causes plaque buildup (atherosclerosis), which can trigger a heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms and, eventually, heart failure.
What can you do? "Set a quit date," Youmans says. "Let your friends and/or loved ones know so that they can hold you accountable, and use nicotine replacement or other medicines to help you quit with the help of your doctor."
You can find tips and other help on the CDC’s website.
Ignoring your mental health
Managing your stress is key for maintaining good health. If anxiety gets out of control, we're more likely to do things that are damaging. What’s more, stress raises your blood pressure. To combat this, try to find something you enjoy that will help you calm down and breathe better. For some people, it's meditating. Others enjoy hiking, cooking or playing board games with friends.
Not losing that weight
Carrying around extra weight, especially around your waist, is bad for your heart.
Obesity itself is a risk factor for heart disease. Researchers have found that the heavier you are, the higher your risk is for heart disease — it's a so-called silent heart injury, even if you feel healthy, even if your numbers look good.
It's also true that being overweight or obese can spike your cholesterol levels, your blood sugar, your triglycerides and your blood pressure. All of these factors damage your heart and raise your risk for developing heart disease. Obesity is commonly linked with diabetes, as well.
Neglecting your dental health
Though a clear scientific link between dental hygiene and coronary health hasn't been established (it's still an open question), some researchers say there is an association between the two. That is, poor oral health often means poor heart health. Gum disease is associated with heart disease, and bacterial infections and inflammation appear to play a part, too.
Good dental health, with regular cleanings, is also important [for] overall heart health. Despite that benefit, nearly 40 percent of people 65 and older haven't seen a dentist in the past year, according to a 2016 "National Health Interview Survey."
Not pushing yourself
Good heart health is often difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain — especially when everyone around you is continuing to do things you know aren't good for you.
Above all, it's important not to give up. Try to be patient. "Habit change is hard," Youmans says. "It can take some time to break them, particularly if they are enjoyable."
He adds, "Anything that is worth having, takes time. Making a small change that you can sustain for a long period is much more important than a bigger change that may be harder to sustain."
And every day is an opportunity to get healthier, whether it's walking past the candy jar, meditating or taking the stairs. Set up a weekly social group. Get 15 more minutes of sleep. Do it again, again and again.