Heart disease prevention may not be on your mind right now, but nurturing your heart, even in the smallest ways, is vital to your health. Everything in your body is connected and your heart is at the center of it all. Even if you have genetic factors linked to heart disease, it is not a death sentence.

Addressing relevant lifestyle factors actually holds your best chance for lifelong heart health. What does it mean to live a heart-healthy lifestyle? Regular exercise and a healthy diet are key elements, of course, but there are other aspects to look at. If you can, start by looking at your everyday habits — because these are the factors you can control.

#1 way to prevent cardiovascular disease?

Quit smoking.

The link between smoking and heart disease is so well documented scientifically it’s impossible to ignore. Smoking irritates the lungs, reduces oxygen uptake, incites inflammation and exacerbates atherosclerosis.

You can’t have a healthy heart until you quit smoking.

woman’s hand putting out cigarette

Do you:

  • Smoke cigarettes?
  • Eat junk food?
  • Drink alcohol to excess?
  • Have a lot of ongoing stress?

All of these habits can exponentially increase your risk of cardiovascular disease but you can change that quickly because you are the one at the steering wheel. You hold the power to point yourself in a heart-healthy direction.

Food choices matter for heart disease prevention

If you’re confused about dietary fats and heart disease prevention, you’re not alone. When you’re considering a heart-healthy diet, “low-fat” food products are definitely not the answer. In fact, low-fat foods can accelerate the development of a heart condition. Put simply, you have to eat some fat to have a healthy metabolism and subsequently a healthy heart.

What kind of fat should you consume to help prevent heart disease? “Good” fats are generally those that are unsaturated (both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils) that come from plants, like avocados and olives, and some fish. Even though your body can’t make them on its own, essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are vital to metabolize cholesterol, control insulin and blood acids, and reduce inflammation. Get key omega-3 fats from oily fish, like salmon, sardines, herring and trout, and through supplementation.

Note that you should always steer clear of trans fats — such as the partially hydrogenated oils in processed foods like crackers and chips. You can still eat moderate amounts of the saturated fats found in dairy products, meat, nuts and seeds.

Heart disease prevention — a simple plan

To reduce your risk of heart disease, consider each of the following and choose one, two or three to get started:

  • Eat well, eat right. Everything you eat affects your insulin levels, metabolism and the synthesis of cholesterol. Build a diet low in sodium, high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and “good fats.” This can significantly reduce your cholesterol levels — without the potential side effects of drugs. Choose a top-quality vitamin–mineral supplement and take it every day. Steady and consistent nutritional supplementation bridges nutritional gaps that could lead to inflammation, elevated homocysteine levels, or inefficient metabolism.
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  • Exercise today, tomorrow and the next day. Your heart is a muscle and the best way to build muscle strength is to exercise. Current guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate daily activity, 5 days per week. Start slowly if you need to, say 5–10 minutes a day, and work up to more. Mindfulness exercise practices such as yoga and t’ai chi are wonderful because they simultaneously reduce stress and are good for heart health.
  • Reduce stress and emotional conflict. Take an inventory of the sources of stress in your life, and then list what you can do about them. Pay particular attention to stress that is linked to negative patterns in your life. There are lots of small things you can do to reduce stress. If you need help and can afford it, invest in therapy, which (with the right therapist) can help you resolve the root of your worst stress.
  • Increase your joy every chance you get. When you open your heart and maximize every opportunity for joy, you bring balance and love into your emotional life. Look into massage, restorative yoga, bodywork and other alternative treatments. (Read our listing of alternative and complementary therapies.) Find something you love, and then do it. Your heart is counting on you, so start being your own best friend.
  • If your heart needs attention, see your practitioner. If blood tests reveal high levels of LDL, or you have a strong family history or other issues such as diabetes you may want to consider medication. Statin drugs, like Lipitor, are still in their relative infancy, but they may be right for you. Recent findings are convincing that these drugs effectively reduce cholesterol and inflammation. However, if they’re prescribed for you, ask about taking them at the lowest possible effective dosage, and in combination with selenium, co-Q10, L-carnitine, and ribose supplements to reduce side effects. You should also discuss taking a daily aspirin for its proven protective properties against cardiovascular disease.
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Get a true picture of your heart health

Another recent gift of modern science worth mentioning is the 64-slice CT scan of the heart. If you have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease or your risk factors for coronary heart disease are high, this non-invasive, virtually pain-free imaging technique can deliver full 3-D images of the heart and other organs in a matter of moments, allowing easy diagnosis and treatment planning. That might range from prevention to immediate surgery. The 64-slice CT scan is not available in all areas and most insurance policies do not cover it, but its cost can often be justified by the knowledge and options it offers. Ask your doctor about it.

At Women's Health Network, we would love to see the rates of heart disease in women decline. We know that the prospect of heart disease can be frightening, but as always, we believe information is power that will help you take control of your heart health. There is so much we know about this disease so let’s take advantage of it. We wish you health and joy with all our hearts.

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