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Home » Resources » Health » Heart Health: Stay in Tune with Your Heart

Heart Health: Stay in Tune with Your Heart


Heart disease is a broad term that covers a number of heart conditions. Among the most common are congenital heart disease (heart defects), coronary artery disease (CAD), arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat), and heart valve disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US—an alarming one in every four deaths to be exact. That’s about 610,000 people each year.

Though long thought to afflict mostly men, heart disease is an equal opportunity illness. Until the late 1980s, few scientific studies included women, even though heart disease was the number one cause of death in women over 50.

Initial research found that women did not experience “classic” symptoms, such as chest pain and tingling. Instead, women were more likely to say they experienced anxiety, sleep disturbances, and unusual or unexplained fatigue. What’s more, 80% of the women in one study reported experiencing symptoms for at least a month before their heart attack occurred. Symptoms in women can be mistaken for other conditions, such as depression, menopause, and anxiety.

Over Time, Stress Sneaks In

Stress causes all sorts of minor physical discomfort—think sweaty hands and nausea. But it also raises your risk of serious heart problems. Stress can increase inflammation in your body, which in turn can lead to high blood pressure. Chronic stress can also affect your heart indirectly. You tend to lose sleep and exercise less. You might rely on fast food over healthy options, which over time will increase your LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) and lower the “good” HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein).

Research shows that people who worry about losing their job are nearly 20% more likely to have heart disease. Likewise, people who are actually happy with their work can be chronically stressed because of the competitiveness of their jobs or because they are constantly trying to balance work and home life. Whether it’s caring for an elderly parent or dealing with COVID-related issues, work, or relationships—there is no shortage of “stressors” that dominate everyday life.

Factors You Can Control

Move every day. Moving a lot improves every other heart health measure and disease risk. Walking up to 10,000 steps a day—or almost five miles—may be ideal, but any amount of walking is beneficial. Another rule of thumb is to exercise 150 minutes per week.

Monitor blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, has no symptoms; it can only be detected by being measured. A score of 120/80 is optimal, and 140/90 is normal for most people. Higher readings mean that arteries are not responding properly to the force of blood pushing against artery walls (blood pressure), directly raising the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Know your cholesterol numbers. LDL transports cholesterol particles throughout your body and builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow. HDL picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver. For an adult, the ideal overall cholesterol number is 200 mg/dl or lower.

Recharge to keep stress at bay. Walk it off, practice yoga, meditation, or deep breathing. Take measures to relax and avoid undue stress. Sleep yields big dividends for a healthy heart; seven to eight hours a night is recommended.

The Lowdown on Diet

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends aiming for a dietary pattern of 5-6% of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 should come from saturated fat, about 13 grams of saturated fat per day. Nuts, especially walnuts, have more cholesterol-reducing omega-3 fatty acids that supply healthy unsaturated fats. Eating just five ounces of nuts per week is linked to decreased cardiovascular disease, experts say.

Say no to sodium and excess sugar. Government dietary guidelines recommend consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) calls for no more than 12 teaspoons of sugar per day from any source.
Note: A typical 12-ounce can of soda has 150 calories and roughly nine teaspoons of sugar. The recommended amount of alcohol is one drink per day for women or two drinks for men.

Saturated and trans fats can be especially harmful to your heart and arteries. A heart-healthy diet is low in these harmful fats but includes moderate amounts of healthy fats. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fats, are good for your heart. Recent research conducted at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, found that a receptor activated by substances formed from omega-3 fatty acids plays a vital role in preventing inflammation in blood vessels and reducing atherosclerosis.

Butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods all contain saturated fat. In general, eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—taking in more fiber and fewer calories—are key to a heart-healthy diet. Stick to tried-and-true food substitutions. Add some guacamole to your tacos, instead of cheese. Spread natural peanut butter or almond butter on your toast. Sauté vegetables in a teaspoon of olive oil instead of butter.

Read More about Dietary Guidelines and Ongoing Research:

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