Maybe you have a family history of heart disease or your parent suffered a massive heart attack. Perhaps you just found out your blood pressure or cholesterol levels put you at greater risk for heart disease. Or, it could be that you thought you were having a heart attack – but it thankfully turned out to be a false alarm.
Whatever it is that’s prompting you to learn more about heart attack prevention, we’re happy you’re here – especially since heart attacks are highly preventable. Read on to learn what you can do to keep your heart healthy.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack is an emergency medical event. Heart attacks happen when one or more coronary artery becomes blocked, preventing necessary blood flow and oxygen from getting to the heart muscle. And without blood flow and oxygen, heart tissues can be permanently damaged or die.
Some of the most common heart attack symptoms include chest pain, discomfort or pressure, pain in the jaw, back or neck, shortness of breath, and dizziness or light-headedness. If you think you are having a heart attack, you should call 911 immediately.
What causes heart attacks?
There are different types of heart attacks, but all of them involve a blockage of blood flow. Often that blockage is due to a buildup of fatty deposits (like cholesterol), which narrows the heart’s arteries. This is called coronary artery disease (CAD) – and it’s the most common cause of heart attacks.
How to reduce your risk of a heart attack: 9 tips
You can greatly reduce your chances of having a heart attack by making lifestyle changes and managing your other medical conditions. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 80% of premature heart disease can be completely prevented.
Below are nine tips to keep your heart – and you – healthy for as long as possible.
1. Keep up on preventive care and health screenings
Why should you stay on top of your annual preventive care? Simply put, these appointments help identify if you have risk factors or early signs of heart disease. Catching potential problems early means that you may be able to fix things before they get worse.
2. Know your numbers
There are a lot of measurements that may signal you have a higher risk of heart disease. Work with your doctor to understand what your numbers should be for blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and body mass index (BMI) – and ways to keep them in line.
Blood pressure levels
Blood pressure is a measurement of how hard your blood pushes against the walls of your arteries. If you have high blood pressure, it means your heart is working harder than it should to push blood – putting you at greater risk for having a heart attack.
What’s considered high blood pressure? Ideally your numbers should be at or below 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic). Anything over that is considered too high.
Blood sugar levels
It’s normal for your blood sugar levels to change throughout the day based on what you eat and what you’re doing. Your doctor can tell you what numbers you should target, but they’re typically between 80 and 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) between meals and less than 180 mg/dL two hours after meals.
If you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes, it’s very important that you track your numbers and avoid extreme highs and lows.
Cholesterol is a necessary substance that your body uses to make hormones and digest fats. But if you get too much cholesterol from the foods you eat, your cholesterol levels can become too high, leading to plaque buildup in your arteries. This buildup narrows your arteries and puts you at greater risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
There are three parts to your cholesterol score – HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Your age and gender play a role in the ideal range for each. Total cholesterol should be under 170 mg/dL if you’re under 19 or under 200 mg/dL if you’re 20 or older.
Another difference is how much good cholesterol (HDL) you should have based on gender – it’s at least 50 mg/dL for women compared to 40 mg/dL or more for men.
Your BMI (body mass index) is a measurement of your body fat based on your height and weight. You may know your BMI already, but if you don’t, you can use this BMI calculator from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Being overweight (BMI between 25 and 29.9) or obese (BMI greater than 30) can increase your chances of getting heart disease.
3. Take control of any medical conditions
The biggest risk factors for heart attacks are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking – and about half of Americans have at least one of these risk factors, according to a report from the American Heart Association. Other health conditions that increase the chances of heart disease are diabetes and obesity.
If you have risk factors for heart attacks, work with your doctor to improve your heath and lower your risks. And if you’re prescribed medications, make sure you take them.
Do statins prevent heart attacks?
Studies show that statins, medications used to lower cholesterol, can lower your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends statins for adults between the ages of 40 and 75 who have an increased risk of heart disease.
Should you take aspirin to prevent a heart attack?
You may have heard that it’s a good idea to take a low-dose aspirin to prevent heart attacks. But depending on your age and health, this may or may not be recommended for you.
If you have heart disease or already had a heart attack or stroke, daily low-dose aspirin can help reduce the risk of a second heart-related event. But if you’re a healthy adult, the benefits of aspirin are not as clear.
Current recommendations from the USPSTF say people should take daily low-dose aspirin if they:
- Are 50 to 59 years old
- Have an increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Are not at increased risk for bleeding
If you’re wondering if low-dose aspirin therapy is right for you, talk to your primary care doctor at your next appointment.
4. Eat a heart-smart diet
A common question is what foods cause heart disease? The answer to this isn’t completely cut and dried. There are certainly some foods that aren’t great for your heart. And you may have a higher chance of heart disease if you have a diet that’s high in sodium, saturated fats, processed meats and sweetened beverages.
But diet-related risks also have a lot to do with what’s not on your plate. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) your chance of heart disease goes up if your diet is low in seeds, nuts, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, fruits and vegetables.
When you eat for heart health, strive for more food choices that naturally lower blood pressure or help improve cholesterol. Also, try to avoid food with too much salt and sugar.
5. Stay active
Why is physical activity so important in preventing heart disease? Exercise helps heart health by improving cholesterol, lowering blood pressure and helping you lose weight. The good news is that getting the benefits of exercise doesn’t mean you have to train for a marathon.
Your goal should be a total of 30 minutes of exercise most days – and it doesn’t have to be all at once. Three 10-minute games of tag with your grandchildren, two 15-minute strolls with your dog or a 30-minute bike ride are all great ways to get your exercise.
6. Quit tobacco use
If you use tobacco products, you probably know that they are not good for your lungs. But smoking and vaping can also damage your heart and blood vessels, which can increase your chances of having a heart attack.
Quitting smoking significantly reduces your risk of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. And by quitting, you’ll also lower others’ risk of heart disease. That’s because just being exposed to secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk of heart disease.
7. Limit alcohol consumption
While it’s okay to have a drink now and then, too much alcohol can increase your risk of heart attacks. Alcohol increases blood pressure levels and affects cholesterol in a bad way – raising the level of triglycerides in your blood. If you’re a woman, aim for no more than one drink each day. Men should have no more than two.
8. Get enough sleep
Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. Why is this? Insufficient sleep – less than seven hours a night – is linked to increased rates of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity – all risk factors for heart disease.
Of course, sleep may not come easily for you – even if you follow tips for better sleep like following a sleep schedule, getting exercise and limiting artificial light. Talking to a sleep medicine doctor may help, especially if you have sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia.
9. Manage stress
Stress happens. But unfortunately, high stress levels can lead to heart problems such as irregular heart rate and rhythms, increased blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the heart. Also, the ways people cope with stress aren’t always the most heart healthy – like eating too much of the bad stuff, skipping medications, working through the night, or trying to take the edge off with smoking or drinking.
You’re human, so there are times when stress is unavoidable. You can’t change that. But you can make changes to strengthen your body’s defenses against stress and find better stress relievers.
You can reduce your overall stress levels by getting enough exercise and sleep, spending time with friends and family, practicing relaxation techniques or starting a new hobby.
You’ll also want to figure out heart-healthy things to do in the moment when you feel your stress levels rising. For example, deep breathing and guided imagery are great ways to work through stressful situations. A good cry or scream can also be a great stress reliever, so don’t be afraid to let it out.
Talk to your doctor about heart attack prevention
Most heart attacks and heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes and by managing your other medical conditions. But the first step toward better health is understanding your current health and risk factors. So, take the time to check in with your doctor.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with heart disease, start a conversation about heart health with your primary care doctor – especially if you’re due for your annual exam and health screening. If necessary, they’ll connect you with a cardiologist who specializes in treating and managing heart conditions.
If you have a cardiologist, but it’s been a while since you’ve seen them, make an appointment to talk to them about your heart heath.