How to Keep Your Heart Young
Exercise and proper diet are a good start. But these cardiologist-approved tips offer surprisingly helpful additions to any routine
Given our current health crisis, it’s easy to forget that COVID-19 is not the leading cause of death in the world. That distinction belongs to heart disease, which killed more than nine million adults in 2019 and represents 16 per cent of all deaths globally according to the WHO. Over six million of these deaths occurred in people between the ages of 30 and 70 and the highest incidents occurred in China, followed by India, Russia and the US. Research shows that COVID-19 itself may harm the heart, by either hindering the flow of oxygen or initiating a potentially damaging immune response. Clearly, it is more important than ever to take control of your cardiovascular health no matter your age: These 25 facts are a perfect place to begin any heart-health education.
1 Get screened early
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that everyone over age 18 get regularly screened for hypertension, or high blood pressure. According to results of a 2019 survey conducted by the Cardiological Society of India, almost one in every three Indian adults are hypertensive. And a study in PLOS Medicine revealed that less than 45 per cent remain undiagnosed. “Your blood pressure can be high without showing any symptoms—that’s why it’s known as ‘the silent killer’,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and the medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. You should also get a lipoprotein profile, which measures your LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and total cholesterol. Left untreated, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can lead to heart disease, an aneurysm or even a stroke.
2 Manage stress and anxiety
Stress plays a role in 77 per cent of all health concerns, including digestive trouble, an inability to lose weight and heart disease, says Nikki Martinez, PsyD, an adjunct psychology instructor at Southern New Hampshire University. “When you reach an age where your body is going through changes and is not bouncing back as it once did, stress and anxiety can start to become quite significant issues,” she explains. “Learning solid coping skills, stress management, mindfulness, and healthy outlets can truly impact each and every area of your functioning.” Stress relief can come in many forms. Try taking a deep breath; giving yourself a mini-massage by massaging the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other; reciting a mantra, such as “I’ve got this” or “I feel calm”; breathing the scent of lavender, peppermint or rose; taking a walk; or simply spacing out for a few minutes.
3 Pay attention to your shoes
Oedema, the buildup of excess fluid in the body’s tissues, can be the result of congestive heart failure. When your heart doesn’t pump blood as effectively as it should, the blood instead collects and causes swelling, most commonly in the feet and legs. “People may notice their shoes feel tight or their socks make lines on their ankles,” says Gregg Fonarow, MD, interim chief of the University of California, Los Angeles, division of cardiology.
4 Watch the cleaning chemicals
Many cleaning products—even some ‘green’ ones—contain chemicals that have been linked to strokes and high blood pressure. When possible, clean your house with items you’d cook with, such as white vinegar, lemon, baking soda and cornstarch.
5 Toss your plastic containers
Chemicals commonly found in plastic water bottles and food containers, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, leach into the contents of these containers. More than 50 medical papers link phthalates to cardiovascular issues. Use glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers instead. Or look at the recycling code on the bottom of any plastic container; if it is a 3 or 7, it may contain BPA or phthalates.
6 Ask about new devices ...
Experts believe that 40 per cent of the world’s 2.6 crore cases of heart failure—a life-threatening chronic condition in which the heart is too weak to properly pump the blood and oxygen the body needs—occur in India. For these patients, there’s new hope: In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Barostim Neo System as a “breakthrough device” that gives patients who don’t benefit from standard treatments an option to reduce their symptoms and improve their quality of life. It’s easily inserted under the collarbone.
7... and medications that can multitask
As an adult, having type 2 diabetes increases your risk of dying from heart disease as much as fourfold, reports the American Heart Association (AHA). If you have been diagnosed with the condition, ask your doctor about diabetes drugs that also have heart-protective properties, including empagliflozin (Jardiance), dulaglutide (Trulicity) and semaglutide (Ozempic). “These reduce the likelihood of a heart attack, a stroke, heart failure and even kidney disease,” says Eduardo Sanchez, MD, chief medical officer for prevention at the AHA.
8 Mind the salt, whatever your blood pressure
“Even for people who don’t have high blood pressure, less sodium will significantly blunt the rise in blood pressure that occurs as we age,” says Goldberg. “As an important bonus, it will also reduce the risk of developing other conditions, like kidney disease, which are also associated with eating too much sodium.”
9 Vegetarians, be aware that you are not immune
“There’s a lot of hype around plant-based diets, and with good reason. Eating a diet low in animal sources of protein and fat and high in produce has been linked to lower risks of cardiovascular disease,” says Erin D. Michos, MD, associate director of preventive cardiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “But not all meatless diets are healthy. You can avoid meat and still load up on refined grains, simple starchy carbs, sugary beverages and dairy—thereby increasing your risk of disease, including heart disease.”
10 Ladies, take note if you had a preterm pregnancy ...
Women who undergo spontaneous preterm delivery (before 37 weeks) may have a greater likelihood of heart disease, according to a Dutch study. Moms of preemies had a 38 per cent higher risk of coronary artery disease, a 71 per cent higher risk of stroke, and more than double the risk of overall heart disease. Researchers say these women may be prone to inflammation, which is linked to preterm delivery and common among heart disease patients.
11 ... or experience lower oestrogen levels ...
Oestrogen is essential for the maintenance of many of the body’s systems, including reproductive health, bone development, mood management and heart health. When menopause hits—at age 51, on average—oestrogen takes a nosedive. “Those changes result in the development of risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” says cardiologist Kavitha Chinnaiyan, MD, director of cardiac imaging research and an associate professor of medicine at Oakland University Beaumont School of Medicine. Research at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, found that women who enter menopause early (before age 46) may have double the risk for a heart attack or stroke, Woman’s Day reported. “Experts suspect that if you stop ovulating prematurely, this may be a sign of blood vessel disease, and you may need extra screenings,” according to the magazine.
12 ... or passed a stress test but still have chest pain
Heart attack symptoms can present differently in women because there’s a difference in plaque buildup and blockage patterns between men and women, according to cardiologist C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. Whereas men often have plaque buildup in the major arteries around the heart, in women it is the smaller coronary blood vessels that cease to constrict and dilate properly, creating the lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart, Bairey Merz says. Thus, women can have normal angiograms and stress tests even if they have heart disease, leading doctors to dismiss even classic symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. Women may also experience dizziness, light-headedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue, all of which can easily be mistaken for other issues.
13 Men: Have a beer
A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that men who drank one beer a day for one month lowered their cholesterol levels, increased their blood levels of heart-healthy antioxidants, and reduced their levels of fibrinogen, a protein that contributes to blood clots. Red wine might be even better; some studies suggest that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skin of grapes used to make red wine, can reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. That being said, research clearly shows that too much alcohol can lead to heart failure, not to mention liver damage, obesity and some types of cancer. So whether you choose beer or wine, keep it to just one or two drinks a day.
14 Open the windows in your house ...
The air inside your home might be even more polluted than the air in the world’s dirtiest cities. There are dozens of possible sources, including hair spray, candles or fumes from the nonstick coating on your cookware. While any of these might be harmless in small amounts, the caustic brew they create when mixed together can turn up inflammation, raise blood pressure and harden arteries. Open windows and use a fan to circulate the air and reduce indoor pollution levels.
15 ... but keep them closed in the car
This reduces your exposure to airborne pollutants. A Harvard University study found that exposure reduces something called heart rate variability (HRV), or the ability of your heart to respond to various activities and stresses. Reduced HRV has been associated with increased deaths among heart attack survivors as well as the general population.
16 ... and beware of natural disasters
A hurricane or earthquake in your region affects you not only mentally and emotionally but physically as well. Researchers at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans studied the number of patients suffering heart attacks in the years after Hurricane Katrina hit the area in 2005. They found a threefold increase in the 10 years after Katrina compared with the numbers in 2003 and 2004. Patients were also more likely to have heart attack risk factors after the hurricane, including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and diabetes.
17 Prioritize sleep
A sound snooze is good for your heart, but as you age, your brain and neurons begin to change and your ‘sleep architecture’ suffers, reports the National Sleep Foundation. That means you’re more prone to waking up during the night and less likely to get the deep sleep your heart needs to function properly. Women also have to battle the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause—hot flashes are notorious for wrecking slumber. “Shorter sleep duration and poorer quality of sleep seem to be associated with increased stiffness of the arteries and increased cholesterol plaque, especially in the carotid arteries,” says staff cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD, PhD, of the Miller Family Heart, Vascular, and Thoracic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. A few classic tips for a better night’s sleep: Avoid afternoon naps and caffeine within six hours of your bedtime.
18 Urinate when you feel the urge
Research at Taiwan University found that a full bladder causes your heart to beat faster and puts added stress on coronary arteries, triggering them to contract, which could lead to a heart attack in people who are vulnerable.
19 Get the right minerals
Potassium and magnesium are among the most important. Potassium helps keep our cells, tissues and organs’ electrical system working properly. Magnesium helps protect against heart attack risks, strengthens muscles and tissues and lowers blood pressure. If you notice your heart skipping a beat, your doctor may want to test your mineral levels. Calcium supplements may also be necessary, for both men and women, especially as the risk of heart and other diseases begins to climb in our 40s.
20 Limit weekend binges
Watching what you eat is important, but research suggests that when you eat might affect your health too. We tend to dine at consistent times during the workweek, but on the weekend, sleeping in, late dinners and impromptu brunches disrupt our usual meal patterns. The problem: Departing from our typical calorie schedule by as little as 10 per cent can lead to increases in blood pressure, waist size and body-mass index, according to a new study at Columbia University of 116 women ages 20 to 64. Researchers believe that disruptions to the circadian rhythms of our heart and other organs are to blame.
21 Get some sun
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and even COVID-19, and the risk for many of these tends to increase with advancing age. Sunlight stimulates your body’s production of vitamin D; you can also get vitamin D from food and supplements.
22 Healthy Eating = Healthy Heart
Doctors have long touted the link between diet and a heart health: Get lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean dairy; reduce processed foods and saturated fats. That advice hasn’t changed. But here are some new findings worth special attention.
- Yoghurt Some yoghurts, and spreads such as margarines, contain added plant sterols and stanols. According to Heart UK, a serving of one such product a day over three weeks can reduce blood levels of LDL cholesterol by up to 10 per cent. Plant sterols and stanols are absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream and block some cholesterol from being absorbed, which lowers the cholesterol in your blood.
- Cumin This spice that is often used in curry dishes has also been found to have powerful effects on heart health. A study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that overweight or obese women who consumed just half a teaspoon of this spice daily reduced their LDL cholesterol and triglycerides—and raised their levels of good HDL cholesterol too.
- Mushrooms A recent scientific review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology analyzed how popular foods help your heart. The authors gave a big thumbs-up to mushrooms for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
- Vitamin C Studies suggest that diets high in vitamin C may reduce your risk of stroke, especially if you smoke, and oranges are one of the best sources. Strawberries, brussels sprouts, broccoli and red bell peppers are also excellent sources. Kiwi is a heart-health standout, too; it’s rich in vitamins C and E and the minerals potassium, magnesium, copper and phosphorous.
- Chocolate A little dark chocolate (at least 75 per cent cocoa; 85 per cent is best) can be heart-healthy. It is rich in healthful flavonoids, particularly those that can help lower the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. What’s more, chocolate or cocoa may lower the risk of insulin resistance and high blood pressure in adults.
23 Don’t let your heart harden
Starting at around age 50, the heart muscle begins to stiffen, making it tougher for it to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. The medical term for this phenomenon is ‘diastolic dysfunction’: The muscle isn’t able to relax after each beat, increasing wear and tear. For women, hormonal changes can make matters worse. “When oestrogen levels decline, women often develop stiffening of the heart muscle,” says integrative cardiologist Regina Druz, MD, of the Integrative Cardiology Center of Long Island, New York. Regular exercise and a balanced diet can help. Don’t delay consulting your doctor if you have any of the hallmark symptoms: shortness of breath, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, coughing up pink and foamy mucus or swelling in the legs, ankles and feet.
24 Be active ...
People who spend a lot of time being sedentary are 73 per cent more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a cluster of problems that raise heart disease risk. “Aerobic exercise and resistance training are the most important for heart health,” says Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D. Spend at least 30 minutes a day engaged in any heart-pumping activity, such as brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, playing tennis or jumping rope, at least five days a week.
25... and be kind
A study found that those who spent money on other people had lower blood pressure than those who spent money on themselves. To double your benefits, do something physically active on behalf of someone else: While you’re out shoveling snow, clear your neighbor’s walkway too.
-Additions by Ishani Nandi