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Beat That: 12 Easy Tips For Maintaining A Healthy Heart

Medically reviewed on Mar 16, 2017 by L. Anderson, PharmD

Throw Out the Smokes

OK, we admit: this one is not easy. But if you smoke, know that quitting is the number one thing you can do to help protect your heart. Not only is smoking bad for your heart, it can lead to lung cancer, COPD, worsens stroke risk, and takes a major toll on your wallet.

Boycotting tobacco can add years to your life. Group support, counseling, and treatments such as bupropion (Zyban), varenicline (Chantix), and nicotine replacement therapies like Nicorette, Habitrol, or Nicoderm CQ may be effective ways to boost your chances for successful smoking cessation.

And this is not just idle talk -- the benefits of smoking cessation have been demonstrated in clinical trials in a wide range of patients. Cigar and pipe smoking is also linked with cardiovascular disease, and smokeless tobacco is highly addictive and can lead to oral cancers.

Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fish oil is not just a fad; clinical trials have shown that fish oil supplementation may improve several heart risk factors, including fatal heart attacks. Higher doses of fish oil can lower triglyceride levels.

Fish oil supplementations, which should include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), should be taken at a dose of roughly 200-800 mg/day of EPA/DHA. You can also get EPA/DHA in 1-2 weekly servings of oily fish such as Atlantic salmon, trout, sardines, herring, swordfish, or tuna, although pregnant women should follow their doctors order on fish consumption, as many fish are high in mercury.

Know Your Heart Age

Just hit your 50th birthday? Congrats! But how old is your heart? Many Americans, in fact, have a heart older than their age would suggest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a 'Heart Age' Calculator to help you determine this number. The Heart Age calculator is meant to be used by individuals 30 to 74 years old who have no history of cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease, or heart failure).

To use it - fill in your Body Mass Index (BMI), systolic blood pressure (the top number), age, and a few other health risk questions and you'll get your answer. You can adjust it to see how changing your BMI or blood pressure might affect your heart age. Then it makes sense to discuss this with your doctor, who can provide meaning behind the numbers.

To Drink or Not to Drink?

It's always best to talk to your doctor first to determine the risks and benefits of alcohol use in your specific case. However, some (but not all) studies have shown positive benefits of moderate alcohol use on heart health. This means no more than two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women. One drink is considered: 12 ounces of beer; 5 ounces of wine (about 150 mL); one shot (1.5 ounces) of 80-proof liquor (about 50 mL).

Obviously there are many reasons for people to avoid alcohol all together -- underage drinking, driving while impaired, pregnancy, alcoholism, certain health conditions, and drug interactions. Moderate to high alcohol consumption has also been linked with elevated risks for breast cancer in women. If you don't drink, starting for health benefits is not recommended.

De-stress for Success

Life is stressful. Work, money, kids, household chores and bills can all add up. That's why it's important to make time to de-stress.

Schedule these events in your weekly planner if you need to. A daily 30 minute walk or run, yoga, meditation, prayer, or even a warm aromatherapy bath can do wonders to ease the tensions of daily life. Have a warm cup of tea. See what works for you best.

Limit caffeine intake, especially later in the day, to boost the chances for a restful sleep (this includes soda). And put the electronics away -- at least 30 minutes before bedtime -- and that means the TV positioned right in front of your bed, too.

It's Time to Fiber-Up

The US diet contains way too little fiber, thanks mainly to processed foods found on the grocery shelves. On average, we should be eating abut 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day. Fiber is great to help you feel full and keep your weight down, which is healthy for your heart. Plus, fiber helps to prevent constipation and straining.

Where to get fiber? Whole grain breads, oatmeal, brown rice, high-fiber cereals, beans and other legumes, green peas, apples/bananas/pears, berries like raspberries and boysenberries, and whole wheat pastas all have significant amounts of fiber. Look at the nutrition labels at the store to find foods high in fiber, and be sure to drink at least 6-eight ounce glasses of fresh water daily, too.

Hold the Salt, Not Just the Shaker

There is a direct link between high blood pressure and excessive salt (sodium) intake. Just holding back the salt shaker at the table may not do the trick if you eat a lot of processed food items or fast food. Prepared shelf items at the grocery are known to be loaded with salt (why do you think they taste so good?). In fact, in June 2016 the FDA called upon the food industry to lower salt in processed food. And meals from fast food chains are notorious for high sodium content. Try to buy fresh vegetable, meats, and frozen foods without salt added. To succeed, cut back on salt slowly but daily, avoid fast food, and try to substitute with salt-free herbs, spices, and fresh lemon juice.

The recommended daily salt intake is about 2300 milligrams per day, roughly the amount of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. However, your doctor may recommend you consume even less than that if you have heart disease.

Don't Snooze Over Your Sleep Apnea

Does your significant other complain about your snoring? Are you tired all day, wishing for a nap at 2 PM? Snoring and daytime sleepiness may be a sign of a more serious problem, known as obstructive sleep apnea. If you think you might have sleep apnea, it's important to talk to your doctor and schedule a sleep study.

Sleep apnea can increase your risk of a variety of heart-related problems -- from high blood pressure to heart failure to stroke -- so a diagnosis is key. Talk to your doctor about the various treatments, including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), certain sleep apnea oral appliances fitted by a dentist, and upper airway surgery are options, with CPAP being the most commonly used and studied treatment.

Keep A Check on Your Blood Sugar

Diabetes is not just hard on your kidneys. Preventing type 2 diabetes can help to lower your risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, dialysis, and possible amputation. A regular adult check-up may include a blood sugar (blood glucose) test. High blood sugar can be the sign of pre-diabetes.

Your doctor might order a random or fasting blood glucose test, an oral glucose tolerance test, or a hemoglobin A1c test to evaluate your blood sugar. If you have pre-diabetes, it is important to make changes in your food choices, quit smoking, take your prescribed medications as directed, and get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day to help ward off full-blown diabetes. Your doctor may decide to put you on a medication known as metformin (Glucophage), too.

Doctor's Order

High blood pressure and high cholesterol do not really produce any physical signs or symptoms; well, not until there is chest pain, heart attack, or stroke. That's why -- if you have hypertension (high blood pressure) or hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol, high triglycerides) -- it's imperative that you take your medicine as prescribed, even if you feel fine.

If you're over 40, you should have your blood pressure checked at least yearly by your doctor; more often if your doctor determines you need it. Men should be screened for high cholesterol at least by age 35 and women by 45 (but earlier if risk factors exist). Risk factors might include diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and a strong family history of heart disease. Ask you doc about the need for a heart "stress test", too. If you doctor prescribes medications to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, it's important to take them. Remember, heart disease is often a "silent" killer.

Aspirin: Is It Always the Wonder Drug?

Aspirin is not for everyone. Low dose (81 mg) aspirin is frequently used to lower the chance of a potentially fatal heart attack and stroke, and can also fight off colon cancer in patients 50 to 60 years of age, according to 2016 recommendations.

But aspirin can cause bleeding, especially dangerous in the stomach, so it's important to take a daily aspirin for your heart ONLY if recommended by your doctor. Your doctor can weigh your risks of aspirin use compared to it's benefits; this decision is always made on a patient-by-patient basis, looking at health conditions, other medications, and family health history.

Antioxidants and Vitamins: Worthwhile or Weak Evidence?

Antioxidants have been touted as having the ability to rid the body or toxic free radicals and lower the risk for heart disease, but studies do not support this notion. Most clinicians do not recommend external high-dose vitamin or antioxidant supplements (beta-carotene, vitamin A, C and D) in healthy adults. In fact, beta-carotene has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer in some patients who smoke. In addition, the USPSTF recommends against the use of β-carotene or vitamin E supplements for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer.

The fat-soluble vitamins -- A,D,E and K -- can be toxic in excessive doses; always ask your doctor before you use a fat-soluble vitamin. In fact, a well-balanced diet that includes fresh vegetables and fruits, dairy with vitamin D and regular sun exposure should be adequate for vitamin D and anti-oxidant levels in most people. However, older patients may need vitamin D supplementation. Some people do need vitamin supplements in certain situations, too, such as pregnancy or in severe vitamin deficiencies.

Finished: Beat That: 12 Easy Tips For Maintaining A Healthy Heart

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