Some factors that heighten your risk for heart disease -- age, gender, and family history -- are out of your control, but others are within your power to change. Taking the following four steps can significantly cut your risk of having a heart attack and lower your overall risk for coronary artery disease:
- Don't smoke. Smoking accounts for 20 percent of all deaths from CAD, while exposure to second-hand smoke results in an estimated 37,000-40,000 cardiovascular deaths a year.
- Eat a healthy diet and choose fats wisely. This can help keep blood fats -- such as triglycerides and various forms of cholesterol -- in balance. Considerable evidence favors including a daily source of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil) to reduce your risk of heart disease. Soy protein and nuts may help, too.
- Exercise regularly. It will help you lose weight, control blood pressure, and balance cholesterol levels. Another largely unrecognized benefit of exercise is reduction of a blood-clotting factor called fibrinogen. Excessive levels of fibrinogen have recently been identified as a cardiac risk factor.
- Control your blood pressure. Manage your blood pressure through diet, lowered salt intake, exercise and stress reduction programs, and drugs, if necessary. High blood pressure may be the biggest preventable killer in the United States. Yet only about a quarter of the 50 million people diagnosed with hypertension have the problem under control.
If you've already had a heart attack or have other key signs of heart disease, experts believe you can cut your risk of future heart attacks by coupling the four main strategies already discussed with one or more other measures, such as:
- Cholesterol-lowering wonder drugs called statins, which have few side effects and some surprising benefits, such as stroke reduction and, possibly, osteoporosis prevention.
- Folic acid, B6, and B12 supplements, which help depress levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. Research connects high levels of homocysteine with a three-fold risk for heart attack in men and suggests even modestly elevated levels may promote atherosclerosis (the process by which an accumulation of fatty plaques eventually narrow an artery) in men and women.
- Other medications, such as beta blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.