Chances are that someone you know has heart disease. You may have it yourself.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that over 11% of the U.S. population currently has heart disease. And while the word “cancer” has the power to strike fear in most people, heart disease is actually the leading cause of death and disability in the United States. According to the CDC, one in four deaths in the United States is due to heart disease. The Department of Health and Human Services puts the ratio at one in three deaths. And these numbers keep climbing due to increasing rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and physical inactivity.
Apart from the health ramifications, heart disease is also expensive. From medical bills to lost work time, costs can range into the thousands each year for a single person.
The statistics surrounding heart disease are grim, but there is good news. Heart disease is largely preventable, and even if you’ve been diagnosed with it, there’s a lot you can do to reverse the damage and live a healthier lifestyle. Here’s a closer look at what causes heart disease and how you can combat it without breaking the bank.
What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, is an umbrella term that incorporates several different heart and blood vessel diseases, many of which are linked with atherosclerosis, or the slow buildup of plaque in the arteries over time. Here are two of the most common.
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease. It develops when cholesterol-ladened deposits, known as plaque, build up inside the heart’s arteries. As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, which means the heart has to work harder to keep blood flowing to all areas of the body. Over time, the arteries can even become completely blocked.
Symptoms of coronary heart disease include:
- Chest pain, typically felt in the middle or left side of the chest and often triggered by physical activity or emotional stress
- Shortness of breath
When coronary arteries are become to narrow as a result of plaque, they can break open. A blood clot then forms around the plaque and completely blocks the blood trying to enter the heart. The heart rapidly becomes starved of oxygen and nutrients, resulting in a heart attack.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Pressure, tightness, squeezing, or pain in the chest
- Pain or aching in the back, stomach, jaw, neck, or arms
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Shortness of breath
It’s important to realize that while chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports that women are more likely than men to experience other, atypical symptoms, such as jaw or back pain. Women are also more likely than men to experience a heart attack without chest pain.
Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) occurs when the heart cannot pump blood effectively. CHF can manifest in two ways.
Systolic dysfunction (or failure) occurs when your heart is too weak or stiff to pump with enough force to circulate blood and oxygen throughout the body. Diastolic dysfunction (or failure) occurs when your heart pumps normally, but the ventricle walls are too stiff to let in enough blood between heartbeats.
According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of congestive heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or fatigue
- Swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Inability to exercise
- Persistent cough or wheezing
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Rapid weight gain (from fluid retention)
- Lack of appetite or nausea when eating
- Increased need to urinate at night
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus
- Chest pain
The Risk of High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is how much pressure the blood puts against the artery walls each time the heart beats. When that pressure is higher than normal, it’s called high blood pressure or hypertension.
According to the CDC, one out of every three adults in the United States has high blood pressure. Alarmingly, rates of high blood pressure are also increasing for children and teenagers due to poor diet, obesity, and physical inactivity – the CDC reports that in 2017, around 4% of kids ages 12 to 19 had high blood pressure.
High blood pressure might not seem like a serious situation as it has no immediate symptoms. However, over time, the heart is damaged from the strain, which can lead to heart attack, kidney failure, or stroke. High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of heart disease.
The High Costs of Heart Disease
Heart disease doesn’t just have health consequences; it has financial consequences too.
The AHA reports that in 2016, heart disease cost the U.S. over $555 billion in health services, medication, and lost productivity. Another report from the AHA projects that between 2015 and 2030, costs for coronary heart disease will increase 100%.
A 2017 study compiled by the AHA reports that the National Institute of Health only invests 4% of its budget on cardiovascular disease research, despite it being the nation’s deadliest, and most expensive, disease. Heart disease was the most expensive chronic condition in the Medicare fee-for-service program in 2014, and costs are expected to top $1.1 trillion through 2035 when nearly half of all Americans are expected to have some form of the disease.
The cost on an individual level varies depending on the severity of the condition. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the average person with heart disease spends $12,796 each year managing their condition – and that doesn’t include the money they lose due to decreased productivity and work absences.
How to Adopt a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
There’s no doubt that the numbers are sobering, but there is a bright side. Anyone, despite their age or current health conditions, can take immediate steps toward a heart-healthy lifestyle. Even better, these changes don’t have to cost a fortune.
1. Get More Exercise
Our bodies were designed to move, so it’s common sense that incorporating more physical activity into your life will have a dramatic, positive effect on your health. But how much exercise do you need?
According to the AHA, you need at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Harvard School of Public Health defines “moderate-intensity” as any activity that burns 3 to 6 times more calories than you would by sitting quietly. That could be doing some heavy cleaning, walking the dog, playing doubles tennis, mowing the lawn, gardening, or going on a bike ride.
Remember, exercise doesn’t have to involve a gym, and there are plenty of ways to exercise without a gym. You can do cardio exercises at home, go for a brisk daily walk, practice yoga at home, or even learn t’ai chi. Anything that gets you moving will have a positive impact. If you struggle with workouts that keep you motivated, check out Aaptiv. They have thousands of workouts available and add something new every week.
If you can’t squeeze in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, the AHA says you can opt for 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Vigorous activities include hiking uphill, jogging at 6 mph or more, carrying heavy loads, playing soccer or basketball, jumping rope, fast swimming, or going on a bicycle ride at 14 mph or greater.
Every day, your goal should be to move more, no matter how that movement takes place. Some other strategies to sneak a workout into your day include:
- Canceling your cable or reducing how much TV you watch. Instead, go for a walk, play with your kids outside, or organize your house.
- Park far away from the store when you’re out on errands, and park far away from your office and walk the rest of the way.
- Skip the elevator and take the stairs.
- If there is room in your budget purchase a fitness tracker. These are great for motivation. I’m frequently challenging family and friends to fitness challenges with my Fitbit Versa.
- Set your phone alarm to go off every hour. When it does, get up and move. Do some squats, touch your toes, or go for a five-minute walk.
- Meet your friends for a walk in the park or around the neighborhood instead of for drinks and dinner.
- When you’re on a business call, walk around your office. Even standing in your cubicle is better than sitting.
- Walk over to talk to a colleague in person instead of calling or using instant messaging.
If you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle, you’re overweight or obese, or you have other health conditions, you might not be able to reach 75 or 150 minutes of physical activity each week. That’s OK. Everyone has to start somewhere, and starting slowly is infinitely better than not starting at all. Over time, your body will get stronger, and you’ll be able to exercise for longer periods.
2. Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Another important element of living a heart-healthy lifestyle is monitoring what you eat and making healthier choices. Of course, that’s often easier said than done. When you add in the demands of a full-time job, raising a family, and running errands, it can sometimes feel impossible to eat healthy consistently.
Unless you’re a celebrity with your own personal chef, it will be difficult – and unrealistic – to start off trying to eat healthy 100% of the time. Instead of striving toward that daunting goal, you’ll be more motivated if you take smaller steps to incorporate better eating habits into your day. Here are some ways you can eat healthier on a budget.
Eat More Fruits & Vegetables
There’s no getting away from this one; we all need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Make a simple goal to add a vegetable to every meal, and opt for a rainbow of colors, such as purple carrots, dark green kale, and deep red beets.
There are plenty of ways to sneak more veggies into your day:
- Instead of potato chips, make kale chips or buy a bag of baked veggie chips.
- Make yourself eat a small bowl of carrot or celery sticks before you can have a sugary snack in the afternoon.
- Order pizza with vegetables on it.
- Eat pickled vegetables for a snack.
- Load up on vegetables at your local farmer’s market and find new recipes for how to use them during the week.
- Eat vegetable soup for lunch; this recipe from Cooking Light is inexpensive to make and full of veggies.
- Eat chips with guacamole, which is full of heart-healthy fats.
- Make a spinach smoothie, such as this spinach and banana smoothie, for breakfast.
- Add sprouts, cucumber, and spinach to your turkey sandwich.
- Over the weekend, grill a large amount of vegetables to use throughout the week. Zucchini, squash, eggplant, and portabella mushrooms hold up well on the grill.
- Drink a low-sodium V8 every day; you can add some hot sauce to improve the flavor.
- Grate vegetables into traditionally meat-heavy recipes, such as this veggie-packed meatloaf recipe from Cooking Light.
These strategies are easy to implement one at a time, and that’s all you need to focus on: simply making one small change at a time.
You can save on produce by visiting discount grocery stores and grocery outlets. These stores often sell slightly damaged or imperfect produce and other food goods. You can get decent produce for a fraction of the price of a regular supermarket if you’re willing to cut away a soft spot or bruise and use the food within the next couple of days.
You can also look at the USDA’s chart of fruit and vegetable retail prices to figure out which foods are most affordable.
For example, fruits such as watermelon and bananas cost significantly less per cup than fresh blackberries and raspberries. Carrots and cabbage are more affordable than fresh asparagus and tomatoes. Although you can certainly do price comparisons in-store, it can be easier to see prices laid out in graph form so you can make choices that match your budget.
Yes, you’ll likely pay more for fruits and vegetables than you would for fast food or processed food. However, produce still costs less than meat. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average cost of a beef roast in May 2019 was $5.52 per pound, while the average cost of a pound of broccoli was $1.93, and a pound of strawberries was $1.97.
Companies like Farm Fresh To You are making buying fruits and vegetibles easy. You choose everything you want, and it’s delivered to your home or office.
Reduce Your Sugar Intake
According to the University of California San Francisco, the average American now consumes 57 pounds of added sugar each year; that’s around 17 teaspoons per day. Ideally, you should eat no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily.
Harvard Health reports that too much added sugar can dramatically increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Research supports this; a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who got 17% to 21% of their daily calories from sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying of heart disease than those who ate less sugar.
Eliminating sugar from your diet takes effort because sugar is hiding everywhere in our food. However, a few simple changes can go a long way. You can:
- Stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit juice. Instead, drink more water or tea. If water doesn’t appeal to you, make fruit- and herbal-infused water; try some of these great recipes from Cooking Light to get started.
- Avoid grain-based desserts such as cookies, cakes, and cupcakes. Instead, opt for healthier sweet treats such as fruit.
- Avoid canned fruit, especially if it’s in heavy syrup. Instead, eat fresh or frozen fruit.
- Use unsweetened applesauce in baking recipes instead of sugar.
Eat More Fish
Fish is healthier for your heart than red meat, especially if you choose fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These include salmon, herring, trout, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Mayo Clinic reports that omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation in the body. Persistent inflammation can damage arteries, as well as your heart, and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Fish is also high in other nutrients that beef lacks, such as vitamins D and B12.
Aim for two servings of fish per week. If you don’t like to eat fish, then take an omega-3 supplement. While research cited by Harvard Health reports that omega-3 supplements don’t offer the full range of benefits that eating fish does, taking one gram per day reduced heart attacks by 28% in study participants.
The cost of fish varies depending on the type you eat and where you live. For example, the average per-pound cost of a salmon fillet can be more than twice that of tilapia. And if you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll pay much less for salmon than you will if you live in, say, Michigan.
Eat More Heart-Healthy Grains
Whole grains are great for your heart. A study published in BMJ found that whole grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, as well as cancer. The AHA reports that eating more whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25% to 28%.
Whole grains are a good source of fiber, which can help improve your blood cholesterol levels. It can also help prevent the formation of blood clots, which lead to a heart attack. Ways to incorporate more whole grains into your diet include:
- Eat oatmeal (homemade, not instant) for breakfast. Add fresh fruit and nuts for flavor.
- Buy whole grain wheat bread instead of white bread.
- Eat whole grain crackers or air-popped popcorn for a snack rather than chips.
- Buy whole grain pasta and tortillas.
- Experiment with cooking whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, barley, farro, or bulgar wheat.
If meal prepping is time consuming for you, a great option is a meal delivery service like HelloFresh. They will send you all the ingredients for a set number of meals and you just need to prepare them. No more going to the grocery store and dealing with the added hassle.
3. Stop Smoking
Smokers inhale almost 7,000 chemicals from tobacco, and 70 of them are known to cause cancer. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that smoking harms nearly every organ in your body. And the American College of Cardiology reports that smoking harms your heart by:
- Causing blood vessels to thicken and narrow
- Raising triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood)
- Lowering HDL (or “good”) cholesterol
- Making blood sticky and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain
- Damaging the cells that line the blood vessels
- Promoting the buildup of plaque in blood vessels and even plaque rupture
While e-cigarettes were once thought to be safer than regular tobacco, doctors and researchers are now realizing that they might be just as harmful to the heart.
There are many financial benefits of quitting smoking, and if you want to boost your heart health, quitting is essential.
4. Reduce Stress
Research shows that stress negatively affects heart health and increases your risk of heart disease.
A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health found that people who experienced high stress in their jobs had a 50% higher risk of developing coronary heart disease. Another study, published in the European Heart Journal, found stress to be an important determining factor of coronary heart disease in working-age populations.
Doctors aren’t sure how stress and heart disease are linked. However, they do know that people who experience chronic stress often engage in behaviors that can lead to heart disease, such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol, overeating, not getting enough exercise or sleep, or doing drugs. Long-term stress also increases blood pressure, which damages arterial walls over time.
Stress, especially over a long period, isn’t good for your heart or body. Learning to use stress management techniques such as visualization or deep breathing can help you lower your heart rate when you’re in a stressful situation. Additionally, learning how to meditate and meditating consistently can help you significantly lower your stress levels over time.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, according to the World Health Organization. It’s also costly.
While there is no way to entirely prevent heart disease, there are a number of easy ways to reduce your risk of developing it, as well as to mitigate the damage if you already have it. Making healthier choices such as exercising more and eating more fish, vegetables, and whole grains can go a long way toward reducing your risk.
What do you do to keep your heart healthy and going strong?