Did you know that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States?
About 659,000 people in the US die from heart disease each year, about 1 in 4 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Because heart disease is more common as you age, it’s important to have regular checkups and know your heart disease risk factors.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease, and nearly half of us have at least one of these four. Poor nutrition and exercise habits can increase your risk for heart disease. This can lead to fatty deposits called plaque to collect in your artery walls and slow the blood flow from the heart.
The number of people affected by heart disease increases with age in both men and women. As you get older blood vessels become less flexible, making it harder for blood to move through them easily.
“While heart disease is most prevalent in people age 60 and older, it can begin to develop much earlier in life,” says Jorge Gonzalez, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic. “Cardiovascular disease affects more than 35 percent of people age 39 and older, and more than 10 percent of those age 20 to 39. That’s why it is so important to live a heart-healthy lifestyle at every age.”
Here are a few age-specific tips for keeping your heart healthy.
Establish a relationship with a physician (even if you are perfectly healthy) and have annual wellness exams, including blood pressure and cholesterol screenings.
Know your family health history. Does heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes run in the family? Let your physician know so he or she can monitor you and recommend testing if necessary.
Despite all the anti-smoking efforts, 25 percent of US adults continue to smoke. The largest growing population of smokers is in individuals age 18 and younger. If you are actively smoking, quit now. This is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Ideally, you should be exercising regularly most days of the week. In addition to regular cardiovascular exercise, include strength training workouts to build muscle. More muscle mass burns more calories and, importantly, keeps the body agile and functional, increases bone density and helps prevent injury in later years. It is much more difficult to build muscle later in life. If you develop these good habits now, your body will thank you later.
As you take on responsibilities such as a career and family, you may find your stress levels increase, which also increase your heart disease risk. Now is a good time to explore stress management techniques that work for you, such as meditation, journaling, deep breathing or spending time in nature.
Maintain your cardiovascular and strength training workouts. It can be challenging to find time to exercise when you are working and raising a family, so make it a natural part of your daily routine, just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. It is not a luxury, but a necessity. If you can’t take care of yourself and maintain your heath, you will not be able to take care of your family, career, etc. Regular exercise also will reduce your stress levels overall.
A woman’s risk of heart disease increases with menopause, so women should talk with their physicians about hormonal changes and their effect on heart health.
See a doctor annually even if you feel fine. Women generally see their physicians for yearly well-woman exams, but men tend to put off going to the doctor unless they are ill, and miss out on important screening exams and check-ups. Don’t wait until it's too late.
Learn the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. Women tend to have much more subtle heart attack symptoms than men, such as severe fatigue or nausea, and may not experience severe crushing chest pain and shortness of breath.
Ask your physician about an ankle-brachial index test, which measures the pulses in your feet to help diagnose peripheral artery disease (PAD). This is a form of cardiovascular disease in which plaque builds up in the leg arteries.
Metabolism tends to slow down with age, and you may be less active, so adjust your diet accordingly to maintain a healthy weight.
People often think they are “too old” to exercise. In reality, it is lack of exercise, physical conditioning and social isolation that contributes to the aging process. Those individuals who stay active and connected to their communities age far more gracefully than those who are sedentary and isolated. Injuries are more common in this age group, so activities will naturally be modified; however there is no reason to stop exercising at any particular age.
If nothing else, find a friend and walk daily. Then work your way up. If your joints are too stiff for walking, try swimming. Consult your health care provider for ideas based on your particular interests and possible limitations.
Regardless of your age, Dr. Gonzalez agrees that just about everyone can benefit from the following recommendations:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat and high in lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and nutrients and low in fat.
- Exercise regularly with a friend or group to help strengthen your cardiovascular system, maintain a healthy weight, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and stay socially connected.
- Stop smoking. If you already have coronary heart disease, quitting smoking will greatly reduce your risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death as much as, or even more than, common medicines used to lower heart disease risk. Moreover, your risk of heart disease begins to drop soon after you quit.