It’s always a good time to practice heart-healthy habits. And it’s pretty harrowing just how prevalent heart disease is in the United States.
“Heart disease is very common in young adults 19 to 40 years of age and ever-increasing above the age of 40,” says Nitin Bhatnagar, DO, a private practice cardiologist of almost 20 years. “There are over 16 million Americans age 20 or older who have heart disease.”
Heart disease claims almost 18 million lives each year globally, and per the CDC, it’s still the number one cause of death in the USA, with one person dying every 36 seconds.
More prevalent in men (8 percent are affected vs. 6 percent of women), heart disease can present with various symptoms (including chest discomfort, shortness of breath, swelling in the legs, or inability to perform physical activity) and can occur due to multiple reasons. “Your lifestyle plays a major role in addition to your inherent genes,” says Aeshita Dwivedi, MD, cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “While we cannot modify our genes, our lifestyle can impact how our genes manifest over a period of time.”
Indeed, smart lifestyle choices can make a big difference in preventing heart disease. And cardiologists will be the first to tell you how meaningful an impact these practices can have. Here’s what they want you to keep in mind in order to support your heart health.
1. Eat a Balanced Diet Filled with Whole Foods and Healthy Fats
Dwivedi urges the importance of making healthy dietary choices. “More specifically, [follow] a Mediterranean diet, focusing on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and olive oil,” she says, citing this research on cardiovascular disease prevention and the Mediterranean Diet. Avoiding processed foods and red meat is key, Dwivedi adds.
Bhatnagar echoes this advice. Opting for healthier choices when fast, cheap, non-nutritious food is easier to grab can be a challenge but will pay dividends in the long run, he says. “I make sure that I eat a well-balanced meal of protein, fat, carbs, with plenty of colored vegetables.” (Here’s more on how to “eat the rainbow”.) Bhatnagar also avoids fatty, fried, and greasy foods at all costs and abstains from sugary and processed foods.
2. Move your body—Often
Even with his busy schedule, Bhatnagar always exercises, either before work at 4:30 a.m. or after work in the evening. “There is no catching up on exercise. What is to be done that day must be done,” he says. If a busy doctor can find the time, we all can.
“Keeping active is very important to protect heart health. Our bodies were meant to be active and not sedentary,” adds Dwivedi, highlighting this research on physical activity and cardiovascular disease. Currently, the American Heart Association recommends adults “get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.”
3. Meditate daily
“I choose to make time at least 10 minutes to 30 minutes a day for meditation,” says Bhatnagar. “Practicing breathing exercises and slowing down the speed of my thoughts to the pulse of my heart beat. Calming my mind helps reinforce a stronger resolve of health each day.”
4. Schedule regular doctor appointments
Dwivedi stresses the importance of seeing your doctor regularly to stay atop of your cardiovascular health, and overall health, too, of course. “Get your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar numbers checked,” she says. Based on your numbers, you may need medication, or you may be able to get things under control with lifestyle changes.
5. Know your risk factors
“There are lots of risk factors for heart disease. Many of them we cannot change, such as age, male sex, and family history,” says Bhatnagar. If you’re older than 50, a male, or have a family history of heart disease, it’s all the more important to see a cardiologist regularly. The good news? Modifiable risk factors like smoking, eating an unhealthy diet, and leading a sedentary lifestyle are all in your control. With dedication and the help of trained medical professionals like nutritionists and cardiologists, you can improve your heart health significantly.