According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the number one cause of death in America. We lose almost 600,000 people to heart disease each year, and 58.8 million Americans currently have some form of this disease.
But that’s just heart disease – if you look at cardiovascular diseases as a whole (including both heart attack and stroke), the number of yearly deaths rises to 950,000, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. And because of the rising rate of obesity, which is linked to heart disease, these numbers continue to grow. Furthermore, heart disease doesn’t just strike the elderly, as many people think. One out of every 20 people in the United States below the age of 40 has heart disease.
It’s important to realize that heart disease can be prevented by making changes to your diet and lifestyle. And as the numbers show, it’s more than worth the effort. Your life could depend on it.
What Is Heart Disease?
The University of Maryland defines heart disease as “any disorder that affects the heart’s ability to function normally.”
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease in the United States. CAD occurs when plaque, which is made of cholesterol deposits, builds up on the inside of the arteries that supply blood to your heart. Over time, your arteries shrink, which means that your heart gets less blood and has to work harder. Your heart becomes weaker from the strain, which can lead to heart failure.
The image below, courtesy of the CDC, shows the differences between a normal blood vessel and a blood vessel choked with plaque.
There are several risk factors that promote heart disease:
- Being overweight or obese
- High blood pressure
- A sedentary lifestyle
- High cholesterol
How to Prevent Heart Disease
The good news is that heart disease is preventable, and there are many things you can do to reduce your risk.
1. Stop Smoking
According to the Mayo Clinic, smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for developing heart disease. The very best thing you can do for your heart, as well as your overall health, is quit.
There are many reasons why smoking is so bad for your heart. First, the chemicals you inhale damage your heart and arteries. Nicotine raises your heart rate and constricts your blood vessels, which means your heart has to work harder. The carbon monoxide you inhale also replaces some of the oxygen in your blood; this further increases your heart rate because it has to work harder to make sure your body gets enough oxygen.
Quitting isn’t easy, but it can save your life. There are also many financial benefits of quitting smoking. You could use the money you save to buy something you’ve always wanted, build up your emergency fund, or save for a vacation.
2. Exercise More
You can dramatically cut down your risk of heart disease by getting enough exercise. You don’t have to hit the gym for an hour or more each day to make a big difference – in fact, adding 60 to 90 minutes of exercise each week reduces your risk of heart disease by 50%. That’s 10 minutes a day!
Even if you’re really busy, there are easy ways to sneak a workout into your day. For example, I use a standing desk while I work. During the day I dance, stretch, squat, and balance. All these tiny movements help me avoid the dangers of sitting. They also keep my muscles toned and my blood moving, and I burn more calories.
3. Eat Antioxidant Rich Foods
University of Maryland cardiologists found that drinking tea, especially green tea or black tea, both of which are high in antioxidants, may help reduce the constriction of blood vessels after a fatty meal. Their study found that adding antioxidant-rich foods and drinks to your diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Other antioxidant rich foods that you should eat more of include:
- Red beans, kidney beans, and other legumes
Eating more beans is especially important, as studies have shown that eating beans four times per week could lower your risk of heart disease by up to 22%.
4. Eat a Well-Rounded Diet
Of course, antioxidant foods are just part of a healthy diet, which is incredibly important for preventing heart disease. Eating less meat and more fruits and vegetables will help you manage your weight, lower your cholesterol, and contribute to better health overall.
Another food that will help prevent heart disease is flaxseed. Flaxseed is considered by some experts to be a “wonder food,” helping to reduce the rate of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It’s high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s a wonderful source of fiber.
If you’ve never eaten flaxseed, you might wonder how to get it into your diet. Doctors recommend consuming ground flaxseed, rather than flaxseed oil, since it has more health benefits. The recommended amount is one to two tablespoons per day. You can add flaxseed to smoothies, oatmeal, soup, or yogurt. You can also add it to any recipe with a dark, thick sauce (like spaghetti or enchilada sauce) or to any baked dish (like bread or cookies) as a substitute for part of the flour.
Your diet has a huge impact on whether or not you contract heart disease, and the positive changes you make can make a real difference in your health and well-being. Make it a goal to avoid fast food and restaurant foods, both of which are often very high in fat and calories. Instead, eat more fruits and vegetables, and eat at home.
5. Limit Stress
According to the American Heart Association, stress does play a role in heart disease, as over time, an increased heart rate will damage artery walls. Limiting the amount of stress in your life not only reduces your chance of contracting this disease, but also a number of other health-related problems. Some doctors estimate that 80% of medical complaints are now stress-related.
If you’re stressed at your job, then learn how to limit workplace stress. This might mean taking deep breaths when you start to feel tense, meditating for 5 or 10 minutes in your office, or hitting the gym after work to blow off some steam.
Money worries can also be a huge source of stress, so sign up for debt counseling or debt consolidation if you feel you can’t take care of the problem on your own. Remember, there are people and resources out there to help you, no matter what kind of situation you’re in, so reach out for it. Even talking to someone about your situation can help relieve stress – and your heart will thank you.
Heart disease is the number one killer in this country, and you should start right now to take preventative steps by making changes in your diet and exercise routine. It’s important to realize that this goes for everyone, no matter your age. ABC News recently released a story about how more young adults are suffering from stroke. This used to be a condition that affected only seniors, and a small percentage of others. Now, it’s becoming more common that middle-aged and even young adults are dying of stroke.
What other tips do you have to improve heart health?