Health Library

Categories > Heart Health > Heart disease: Causes and risks

A practical plan to attack-proof your heart

If you think about your heart—how it works 24 hours a day to keep you alive—you’ll understand how important it is to keep this powerful muscle as strong as possible.

Today, about 450,000 Americans die every year from coronary heart disease, which is caused by a narrowing of the coronary arteries that feed the heart. The disease puts people at risk for heart attack. Everyone should know the warning signs of a heart attack, since it is a life-threatening emergency. (See “Is It a Heart Attack?”)

At the same time, you can take steps to improve your overall heart health by identifying your risks for coronary disease and finding ways to significantly reduce them with lifestyle changes. (See “Am I at Risk?”)

Here are some suggestions to keep your ticker in tiptop shape:

  • Eat better. Choose a balanced diet with foods from all major food groups, emphasizing fruits, vegetables and grains. Include fat-free and low-fat dairy products, beans, poultry and lean meats. Fish is a must, since it contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Choose to lose. Make the commitment to lose excess weight with a good diet and exercise. Steer clear of foods high in calories and/or low in nutritional quality, including those with lots of sugar, additives and preservatives.
  • Lower cholesterol levels. Avoid foods with a high content of saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fatty acids (foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as some margarines).

A rule of thumb from the American Heart Association is to limit dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams a day. Those with coronary heart disease should limit intake to 200 milligrams a day. If diet isn’t enough to produce improvements, ask your doctor about taking a cholesterol-lowering drug.

  • Watch your blood pressure. Have your blood pressure checked frequently. Besides following the other heart-healthy advice on these two pages, monitoring your sodium intake may help: Take advice from the American Heart Association and use no more than about one teaspoon of salt a day. If lifestyle changes don’t work, your doctor may prescribe antihypertensive medication to control high blood pressure.
  • Tackle those triglycerides. These combinations of fatty acids and glycerol store energy, but too many triglycerides in the blood increase the risk for heart attack. You can help lower high triglycerides by following a low-fat, low-calorie diet and exercising regularly. If that doesn’t do the trick, talk with your doctor about medications.
  • Sample soy. This versatile food appears to have significant benefits for a variety of conditions, from osteoporosis to cancer. Eating soy protein in place of animal products reduces total cholesterol levels, the “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides. Try soy as a milk alternative with cereal or in recipes.
  • Enjoy yourself. Take up a sport or a fun exercise to help lower blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, as well as to stay in shape and reduce stress. Relax regularly with anxiety relievers such as meditation, yoga, massage or a nice hot bath.
  • Give up smoking. You already know smoking increases your chance of heart disease. It’s not easy to quit, but there are many sources of help, including gums, patches, hypnosis, smoking-cessation classes and more. Keep trying until you find what works for you.
  • Benefit from breakthroughs. Visit your doctor regularly to check on your heart health and to learn about new and improved tests and treatments that can help you feel your best. Remember to tell your doctor about your medical history. It’s important to work together with your physician to properly identify the risk factors and take the steps necessary to ensure your health.