As you likely know, heart disease is the number-one killer in the US. Over 600,000 Americans die annually as a result of it, and 735,000 suffer a heart attack.
Bleak statistics, to say the least.
With so many people affected by heart disease, you may wonder, “Is everyone doomed? Am I doomed?” Perhaps most importantly, “is there really anything I can do to prevent it?”
Research shows the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.”
A few years ago, the American Heart Association introduced a list of seven lifestyle habits that can protect your heart and reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Exercise. It’s not necessary to become an endurance athlete or Olympian. A simple 25-30 minutes of moderate exercise four-five days a week (two and a half hours a week) is all you need to safeguard your ticker. If you engage in more intense workouts, then 75 minutes per week is enough.
- Eat healthier. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll keep repeating it: the modern Western diet is an efficient killer. It contains processed foods high in sugar, fat (particularly trans and omega-6 fats), and salt, all of which make you gain weight and raise the risk of numerous life-threatening diseases. If you forgo processed foods in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, you will dramatically improve your health, including your heart health.
- Control your cholesterol. Most people associate the waxy, fat-like substance called cholesterol with heart disease. However, cholesterol is actually a structural component in each and every cell, and your body needs a certain amount of it to function properly. For optimal heart health, you want to strike a healthy balance between two types of cholesterol—HDL (the “good” kind) and LDL (the potentially “bad” kind). Elevated LDL can clog the arteries, but HDL helps to sweep away excess LDL, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease.
- Manage your blood pressure. Millions of Americans have high blood pressure and don’t even know it, putting them at significant risk of heart disease. Ideally, you want your blood pressure to be 120/80 mmHg or lower, but that is often difficult based on our age and genetics. One in three American adults has high blood pressure, which is a reading of 140/90 mmHg or higher. People with lower blood pressure live longer and are less likely to have a heart attack. Eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise are the best ways to manage your blood pressure.
- Fight obesity. Carrying too much weight can increase risk of virtually every serious disease. But in those who are overweight or obese, losing just 3-5 percent of their body weight can have meaningful effects on overall health, including heart health.
- Reduce blood sugar. Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease. And adults with diabetes have up to a 4 times greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who do not have diabetes.
- Stop smoking. It should go without saying, but smoking puts you at greater risk of heart disease as well as various cancers, stroke, and lung disease.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking: “Duh, everyone knows this.”
Yes, pretty much everyone knows they should do these things to protect their heart. However, most don’t know just how life changing these lifestyle modifications can be. Recent research out of the University of South Carolina gives us an idea.
In this study, researchers followed 11,993 people for just over 11 years to assess how following these seven lifestyle habits cut the risk of death from heart disease. They found that, compared to those who adhered to only 0-2 of the habits above, the risk of death was 55 percent lower in those who followed 3-4 of the habits, and 63 percent lower in those who practiced 5-7 of them.1
Essentially, this study confirms that these important lifestyle changes provide clear and unwavering benefits to your heart—and the more of them you do, the better off you’ll be.
If you’re a smoker, the most important thing you can do is to quit. The benefits of quitting are instantaneous.
After that (or if you’re not a smoker), start exercising and improving your diet. We just published a helpful e-book that provides you with a step-by-step process to help you change in these areas. An excellent diet and regular physical activity initiate a cascade of events that eventually culminates in lower weight and healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, and dramatically lowers your risk of a heart attack.
An Easy 8th Step
Finally, I want to personally add an 8th step to this list: increase your intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
The American lifestyle (lack of exercise, obesity, excess stress, poor diet rich in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, etc.) sets the stage for chronic systemic inflammation, which itself ups the risk of heart disease.
But eating omega-3–rich foods (salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, and albacore tuna) and taking an omega-3 supplement every day decreases inflammation throughout the body and adds an extra layer of protection for the heart.
The vast amount of research on omega-3s and heart health is extremely compelling.
An analysis of 13 studies (a total of 222,000 participants) showed that consuming only one fish meal per week compared to one fish meal per month reduced risk of death from heart disease by 15 percent. Those who ate the most fish (five or more times per week) enjoyed a 40 percent drop in risk.2
Another analysis of 25 studies examined omega-3 and omega-6 content in tissue samples of heart disease patients. Omega-3 levels were consistently and dramatically lower in patients experiencing heart-related events. The researchers concluded that these findings “add further support to the view that long-chain [omega-3 fatty acids] are cardioprotective.”3
Along with the seven habits recommended by the American Heart Association, I strongly believe that making omega-3s part of your daily diet may be one of the smartest things you can do.
- Artero EG, et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Oct;87(10):944-52.
- He K, Song Y, et al. 2004 Jun 8;109(22):2705-11.
- Harris WS, et al. Atherosclerosis. 2007 Jul;193(1):1-10.