Heart-Healthy Living's Guide to Reducing Your Heart Attack Risk

Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Take charge of your health with these important, real-life ways to reduce your heart attack risk and live a healthy, long life.

Your heart attack risk is based on your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, your weight, your family history, and your diet and lifestyle.

Take two steps to assess your risk level:

Step 1: Get your cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight measured by your physician. Use this guide to ask your doctor the right questions and track your key results.

Step 2: Turn to your relatives to find out your family history. Heart disease and heart attack risk can be passed down through generations. "Your immediate family history is the most important," says Jennifer Mieres, M.D., Heart-Healthy Living advisory board member and a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center. "There is an especially strong link if your siblings have heart disease."

You are at higher risk for heart disease if:

-- your brother, father, or grandfather had a heart attack before age 55

-- your sister, mother, or grandmother had a heart attack before age 65

"But you're not destined to follow in your family's footsteps," says Sharonne N. Hayes, M.D., Heart-Healthy Living advisory board member and director of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota: "Look at their lifestyle choices as well. If your mother was a heavy smoker, that may have had a strong effect on her heart attack at age 45."

Read on for 10 simple yet important ways to lower your risk for a heart attack.

Lower Total Cholesterol

According to the American Heart Association, high cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for heart attack, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

There isn't one perfect way to beat cholesterol. Some people can lower their levels by diet alone; others can lower it with exercise. But for many, the best way to lower cholesterol is a combination of exercise, medications such as statins, and maintaining a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

As part of a heart-healthy diet, opt for foods that are low in saturated fats. Foods to limit include:

-- Whole milk, cream, and ice cream

-- Butter, egg yolks, and cheese -- and foods made with them

-- High-fat processed meats, such as sausage, bologna, salami, and hot dogs

-- Fried foods

-- Coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil

-- Solid fats, such as shortening, partially hydrogenated margarine, and lard

Work Toward a Healthy Weight

"Obesity puts you at risk for all other risk factors," Jennifer Mieres, M.D., says. "People who are obese are more likely to have elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes."

But a number on a scale isn't the sole factor to examine. Your gender, height, and place where you carry your weight determine what weight is healthy for you.

To get an idea of what your ideal body weight should be, use a credible online body mass index (BMI) calculator like the Mayo Clinic BMI calculator or the National Health Institute BMI calculator. Note that a calculator may be inaccurate because it does not take different body types into account. If you feel it may be giving you a false reading, try Mieres' simple formula:

Your waist circumference should be less than or equal to half of your height.

If you find that your weight is too high, talk with your doctor to determine a healthy weight loss plan that will work for you.

Lower Blood Pressure with Less Sodium

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the major risk factors for heart attack. One of the most effective ways to lower blood pressure is to reduce your sodium intake: Studies have shown that reducing the amount of sodium in your diet can lower your blood pressure by 19 points.

Most people consume 4,000-6,000 milligrams of sodium every day. But according to the National Institute of Health and the American Heart Association, your daily sodium intake should be:

2,300 milligrams of sodium or less: For adults up to the age of 50

1,500 milligrams of sodium or less: For those older than 50, African-Americans, and those with high blood pressure

To keep your sodium levels low, try our delicious and expert-tested low-sodium recipes and find out how to avoid hidden sodium in what you eat.

However, reducing sodium is not the only way to lower blood pressure. Talk with your doctor about the important role weight loss and exercise can have in your efforts to lower your numbers.

Control Blood Glucose Levels

People with diabetes are at an elevated risk for heart disease. Fortunately, the healthy lifestyle changes that control your risks for diabetes are the same as those you can make to control your risks for heart disease. In both cases, good blood glucose (blood sugar) control will help you stay healthy.

Control your blood sugar levels by:

-- Counting carbs

-- Using medications as directed

-- Staying active

Be Physically Active

Exercise has a wealth of heart attack prevention benefits. "In addition to making you feel better, exercise improves the function of the endothelium, the lining in the arteries, which can prevent plaque from forming," Sharonne Hayes, M.D., says. Being physically active also increases your HDL (good) cholesterol, lowers your LDL (bad) cholesterol, helps control your blood pressure, and decreases stress.

Easy ways to stay active throughout the day:

-- Clean your kitchen

-- Go for a walk around the block

-- Try a yoga class

-- Take your dog for a walk

-- Turn on some music and dance in your living room

If you're limited by an injury or don't feel comfortable working out, try water walking. Walking in chest-deep water is a great form of cardiovascular exercise. Before whatever new workout you choose, check with a physical therapist to ensure you don't injure yourself further.

Increase HDL Cholesterol

When it comes to cholesterol, a high level isn't always a bad thing: A higher level of HDL cholesterol (good) cholesterol can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Although HDL and its function in the body is still being studied, some experts say that HDL helps slow arterial plaque buildup by carrying the LDL (bad) cholesterol to the liver for disposal.

A 2006 Indiana University study of more than 7,000 participants found that a low HDL level was the third strongest predictor of heart disease. The two strongest predictors were age and already having some form of heart disease.

HDL levels lower than 40 mg/dl for men and 50 mg/dl for women increase the risk of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. The AHA recommends that both men and women aim for an HDL level of 60 mg/dl or higher to reduce risk.

Reduce Stress

Stress increases your risk of heart attack by affecting your other risk factors.

"Acute stress, or stress that is immediate and for a short period of time, tends to increase your stress hormones, which then increases your blood pressure and raises your cholesterol," Sharonne Hayes, M.D., says.

Hayes says that with chronic stress there may be something more, such as a motivation problem and sustained hormonal changes. With this type of stress, you are less likely to exercise and more likely to eat excessively, leading to an increased likelihood of accumulating belly fat.

Easy ways to reduce your stress levels include:

-- Exercising with a friend

-- Meditation

-- Controlling your finances

-- Taking a warm bath

-- Doing yoga

Get Restful Sleep

When you don't sleep, you increase your chances for heart disease. Conversely, heart disease is a leading cause of sleep loss.

So how do you stop counting sheep and start getting to sleep?

-- Write down all of the things that you're concerned about before going to bed so you don't have to think about them as you're trying fall asleep.

-- Turn off your cell phone so the light and the loud ringer won't interrupt your nighttime routine.

-- Before crawling into bed, sit on the floor, take a few deep breaths, and try to relax.

Stop Smoking Today

Smoking can take a huge toll on your overall health, especially your heart.

"When you inhale cigarette smoke, it decreases the oxygen to the heart, causing blood vessels to constrict, which increases heart rate and damages cells that line coronary arteries," Jennifer Mieres, M.D., says. Those cells are the first line of defense of protecting the arteries, and when they're under constant damage from cigarettes, plaque can more easily accumulate, Hayes says.

Tips to quit smoking:

-- Throw away any cigarettes you already have.

-- Commit to making your home a smoke-free place.

-- If you're a stress-smoker, find other ways to tackle your tension, such as one of these 60-second stress relievers.

-- Don't get discouraged. "Many patients who have successfully quit smoking have tried to quit a couple of times before," Hayes says. "It's a learning experience, so if one thing doesn't work for you try something new.

Drink Alcohol in Moderation

Cheers to reducing your risk of heart attack. Several studies have indicated that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol (one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men) may benefit your heart.

Alcohol's heart-health benefits include:

-- Raising HDL (good) cholesterol up to 10 percent

-- Preventing blood clots

-- Helping prevent artery damage from high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol

And it's not just alcohol found in red wine -- red wine's antioxidants will give an extra boost of heart health. Some studies suggest that the antioxidant resveratrol, found in grape skins, might be the key heart-healthy ingredient in red wine that helps lower LDL, protects blood vessels, and prevents blood clots.

But don't start drinking just for the benefits. "We would never suggest someone start drinking," Sharonne Hayes, M.D., says. "It is empty calories, and if you are a person with diabetes you need to think twice about its effects." Also, even small amounts of alcohol can increase triglycerides.

If you already drink red wine, do so in moderation -- no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. (One drink consists of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

Talk with your doctor about whether the benefits of alcohol outweigh the risks.

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