A broken heart can, in fact, kill you. Heart disease—which can refer to several types of heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, and can lead to a heart attack—is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet about 80 percent of cardiac and stroke events may be prevented with knowledge and heart-healthy action.
So what can you actually do? We’ll answer that question with 15 more. Eat This, Not That! Health rounded up a list of your biggest Qs about heart disease—and found As for them all. Keep reading for a real heart to heart.
What is Cholesterol And is it Always Bad?
Despite its reputation, cholesterol is not exactly the c-word. Yes, high cholesterol is not a good thing, but cholesterol in general is necessary for your existence. Seventy-five percent of this waxy, fat-like substance is produced by your liver and other cells of your body. The rest you usually get by eating animal products like meat, egg yolks, or dairy (cholesterol isn’t produced in plants, so you won’t find it in vegetables or fruits).
So why do you need It? Cholesterol is necessary to make your hormones such as estrogen, or testosterone; production of vitamin D; and is a building block for human tissue. Too much of it, however, can reduce your blood flow through your arteries which can lead to chest pain, stroke or heart attack.
Recommendation: Visit your primary care doctor to check your cholesterol and other risk factors. The American Heart Association recommends to do it every four to six years. If you are over 35, you should do it even more often. Your doctor will explain what your results mean and suggest the next steps, but you don’t want your LDL (bad cholesterol) level to be 190 or higher.
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Disease?
Warning signs are a good thing. They alert us to a problem and give us information that we may be able to act on. Heart disease can manifest in a number of different ways, including chest pain; tightness or discomfort; shortness of breath; dizziness; irregular heartbeat; a sense of doom; becoming easily winded by regular everyday activities, and more.
Recommendation: If you experience any of these symptoms, particularly together, call your doctor immediately—it could be a sign of a heart attack.
If I’m a Woman, Are the Symptoms the Same?
It’s no longer a man’s world, especially when it comes to heart disease. For decades, the medical community and general public saw heart disease as a “man’s” disease. But this is no longer the case. If you have the risk factors and also family history, you have the potential to develop heart disease—whether you’re a man or woman. The sad truth is that about the same number of women and men die from heart disease every year.
Wait, there is more: Heart disease is now the No. 1 cause of death in women. According to the Centers for Disease Control heart disease kills almost 300,000 women every year or causes 1 of every 5 female deaths. And despite increased awareness, the CDC reports that only 56 percent of women know how deadly heart disease is to women.
Recommendation: A heart-healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward reducing your overall risk of heart and other diseases.
Do Men And Women Experience the Same Heart Disease Symptoms?
Heart disease symptoms in women may differ from those experienced by men. If you’re a woman, learning to recognize these symptoms can reduce your risk. Most men and women will exhibit the most common symptom of a heart attack: chest pain. But one in five women do not have any chest pain at all when having a heart attack. Learn what the warning signs are: They can save your life.
Recommendation: Take heed, these are the most common symptoms of a heart attack in women.
Pain and/or discomfort in your chest, neck, jaw, back, arms, or stomach
Unusually rapid heartbeat
Shortness of breath
Although these symptoms could be caused by other factors if you experience them, see a doctor.
My Parents Had Heart Disease. Am I Doomed?
You share more than you think with your family, and we’re not talking dad’s big schnozz. You share genes, behaviors, lifestyle. All these can influence your risk of developing certain health conditions—heart disease included. The risks can be further impacted by your age, race, and ethnicity. If your mother had a stroke or your father had a heart attack, you are at higher risk for heart disease. The American Heart Association shares that both the risk of heart disease and risk factors for heart disease are strongly linked to family history.
Recommendation: You can’t change your family history, but you can change your behavior. Check your cholesterol and blood pressure regularly and pay more attention to the risk factors that you can limit, like getting regular exercise and eating a healthy balanced diet. Start with a delicious collection of recipes that will teach anyone how to cook beautiful meals, lose weight fast, and get healthier fast.
Is Heart Disease Reversible?
You can’t turn back time—once your heart is damaged it’s not possible to regenerate dead cells. Although you cannot regrow your heart muscle, you may be able to reverse heart disease by making lifestyle choices (like not smoking) that keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check. Several research studies have shown that aggressively lowering your LDL or “bad” cholesterol below 100 can actually open up blocked coronary arteries, at least partially.
Recommendation: Intensive lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce plaque build-up in your arteries, lowering the risk of heart disease. The secret to preventing heart disease just might be the Mediterranean diet. Start now with these easy 15 Mediterranean Diet Swaps for Your Go-To Meals.
Can a Glass of Red Wine a Day Help Keep the Heart Doctor Away?
Rejoice, real housewives: Scientific research shows that having one or two drinks a day can help keep the risk of heart disease at bay. Why? It’s thought that drinking wine or alcohol—in moderation!—increases levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol and protects against plaque build-up in your arteries. This benefit is lost, however, at more indulgent levels of copious alcohol consumption.
Recommendation: Gin-and-tonic (and even Aperol-spritz) lovers take note: This heart-healthy benefit is not restricted to red wine! Studies show that any alcoholic drink may have some happy heart benefits. Enjoy responsibly—whether it’s occasional or overindulgence, drinking alcohol has a big effect on the body’s detox system.
Will Taking an Aspirin a Day Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease?
Many healthy Americans take a baby aspirin every day to reduce their risk of various diseases, including heart attack, stroke, cancer, and dementia. However, is it really a good idea? Nope. A recent study released by the New England Journal of Medicine says, “Aspirin use in healthy elderly persons did not prolong disability-free survival over five years but led to a higher rate of major hemorrhage than placebo.” If you’re healthy and don’t have high-risk markers for heart disease, leave the baby aspirin to sick babies.
Recommendation: There is an exception, though: If you’ve already had a heart attack or suffered a stroke, talk to your doctor. Strong evidence suggests that taking a daily baby aspirin can reduce your risk of suffering another heart attack or stroke.
Can Exercise Really Make My Heart Stronger?
It really can. Moving your body has enormous health benefits: Exercise reduces blood pressure and increases HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or “good” cholesterol while helping lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or “bad” cholesterol.
Physical activity can help rid the body of arterial plaque build-up—and is one of the most effective tools to strengthen heart muscle. Exercise is also a great stress reliever. And of course, it can help you look hot in those new Levi’s.
Here’s more: Getting regular exercise makes it less likely that you will suffer a heart attack—and if you do, it will likely be less severe.
Recommendation: Not all exercise is created equal when it comes to heart health. According to Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D., “Aerobic exercise and resistance training are the most important for heart health.” The American Heart Association offers some great tips to help get you moving!
I’m Overweight. How at Risk am I?
Bigger is not better, especially when it comes to our hearts. Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease. In fact, there can be a ten-fold increase in the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes due to being overweight. It also decreases your HDL cholesterol, another significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
In fact, obesity is the leading cause of heart disease risk and death in the United States, and 70 percent of American are adults classified as overweight or obese. What’s also alarming is that its rate and incidence of obesity have been on the rise in both adults and children.
Recommendation: If you’re overweight, consider making some serious heart-healthy lifestyle changes. Try lowering your cholesterol by eating a more plant-based diet. Also, get your body moving.
I Love Salt. How Much Can I Have?
Sodium is a vital mineral that’s crucial for both muscle and nerve function, but too much salt intake may increase your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans put forth by the CDC recommends that you consume fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
And you must stay on top of your sodium intake—the amounts you take can sneak up on you, especially in foods you don’t normally suspect as being high in salt. Some common culprits include pickles, peanuts, ready-made meals, canned soups, and of course, potato chips. Just one cup of your favorite chicken broth can have as much as 860 milligrams of sodium!
Recommendation: Look for canned foods with “low sodium” or “unsalted” on the label. And these tips will help you beat bloat, improve heart health, and bring some excitement to your dishes!
How Bad Does My Stress Tax My Heart?
Stress can indeed stress your heart out. The American Heart Association reports that it can contribute to high blood pressure, asthma, ulcers, and gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. Essentially, excessive stress can have an outsize effect on your body. It also affects behaviors that can increase your risk of heart disease. Drinking and smoking are two common ways we try to “manage” stress in our lives, but both can increase blood pressure and impact heart health.
Recommendation: Managing stress will help improve your overall health. Positive self-talk (“I’ve got this!”) or taking a few slow, deep breaths are among the tips recommended by American Heart Association.
Smoking is Bad, of Course, But How About Vaping?
So you finally managed to curb your smoking habit—congrats!—and switched to e-cigarettes, like 3.2 percent of adults in the United States. Many people (yes, we’re talking about you, Pete from sales), think it’s cool, and also less damaging than smoking. It’s easy to forget that e-cigs—as well e-pens, e-pipes, e-hookah, and e-cigars—deliver nicotine, a highly addictive substance that according to The American Heart Association is hazardous to your health and is linked with cancer-causing chemicals.
Cancer is not the only problem: A 2019 survey revealed that vapers have 71 percent higher risk of stroke, 59 percent higher risk of heart attack and 40 percent higher risk of heart disease compared with non-users.
Recommendation: Want to get more heart smart? Quit smoking! Try a variety of approaches to help you stop—from nicotine-replacement patches and gum to medications. And if you happen to know a vaping teen—17 percent of whom start vaping because they believed that e-cigs are less harmful than other forms of tobacco—send them a link to this article. If they quit now, the risk of heart disease will come down within one to two years.
What Diet Changes Can I Make to Lower My Risk of Heart Disease?
How much you eat may be just as important as what you eat. Do you often overload your plate, regularly take seconds (or thirds!), and eat until you’re stuffed? Then you are eating more calories than you should, and you gain weight. When you gain too much weight, your risk for heart disease goes up. This is not to say that what you eat doesn’t matter. It does. Follow advice of author Michael Pollan, who wrote: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Recommendation: Start with cutting on sodas and red meat. Eat a lot of fruit, vegetables and whole grain food instead. Try to add more nuts and seeds to your diet and eat fish at least twice a week.
What Lifestyle Changes Can I Make to Lower My Risk of Heart Disease?
Glad you asked. It means you might be interested in making changes big and small.
Recommendation: Adapt your lifestyle by following these six heart-savings steps:
• Stop smoking or vaping. This is one time you want to be a quitter. If you need assistance check out this helpful guide from the American Heart Association.
• Eat a healthy diet. Use more vegetables and fruits in your diet. Go easy on white bread. To quote Michael Pollan again: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
• Move your body. Be physically active. Every. Single. Day. Getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and keep your waistline looking trim.
• Reduce stress. Research shows a clear link between being highly stressed and heart disease. If you are stressed out, there are management tools that can help.
• Lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, which is a leading cause of disability in the United States. Prevention is key.
• Manage high cholesterol. Cholesterol spackling the walls of your arteries is a disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, that fat could trigger a heart attack or stroke. If you’ve got high cholesterol, lower your intake of trans and saturated fats, and move your body (see above). If these lifestyle measures do not work, medication may be needed. And to get through life at your healthiest, don’t miss: This Supplement Can Raise Your Cancer Risk, Experts Say.