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Some important lifestyle changes will reduce risk of heart disease

by Staci Gulbin | Contributor
April 20, 2022

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in the United States and has been for the past 100 years. Older adults over the age of 65 are at greater risk than younger adults to having a heart attack, stroke or heart failure. That is why it's important to start living a heart healthy lifestyle as soon as possible.

The heart and blood vessels change as a person ages, which make the arteries harden and in turn makes the heart work harder during physical activity. Not only that, but these changes can make an older adult more prone to high blood pressure and more sensitive to salt. These changes do not mean that you are destined to develop heart disease, though. There are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk of heart disease.

Although you can't change your family history, you can change the way you engage in daily activities of living. This means you can alter the way you eat and the way you move, for example. Let's discuss heart disease, what lifestyle changes you can make to prevent your risk and ways you can adopt a heart healthy diet today.

Basic facts about heart disease

Coronary artery disease, which is what many people mean when they say heart disease, is a type of heart disease where the arteries have a hard time moving oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the heart. This type of heart disease is the most common and happens when plaques form in the lining of the arteries, in turn hardening them.

Other forms of heart disease include:

  • Heart attack, which is the blockage of blood flow to the heart
  • Heart failure, which is the weakening of the heart's ability to pump blood to the body's tissues
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart valve disorders, which make it hard for the body to control blood flow from one part of the heart to the other
  • Cardiomyopathy, which is the enlargement, thickening or stiffening of the heart

These are just some of the forms of heart disease that your doctor may talk to you about if you are at risk.

Risk factors of heart disease

If you have risk factors of heart disease, then you will have a greater chance of developing heart disease in your lifetime. There are some risk factors that you can control and some you can't. Those uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Age: Growing older increases risk of heart and vessel damage.
  • Biological sex: Men as well as postmenopausal women are at greater risk of heart disease.
  • Family history of heart disease: Family members that have had heart disease, especially if their diagnosis was before the age of 55 years old, increases your risk of heart disease.
  • Health conditions: If you have a health condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, then you are at greater risk of developing heart disease. You can change your lifestyle to lower your risk of such conditions, which will in turn lower your risk of heart disease. However, if you already have one of these conditions, then you will have to be extra careful since your heart disease risk will already be higher than those without such health conditions.

Luckily, there are some risk factors you can control to help lower your risk of developing heart disease. These controllable risk factors include:

  • Smoking: Nicotine can constrict, or tighten, your blood vessels and increase your risk of high blood pressure, and in turn, increase your heart disease risk. Also, the carbon monoxide from smoking can damage the lining of your blood vessels, which can increase you risk of hardening of the arteries.
  • High fat or high salt diet: A diet high in fat and/or salt can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Being inactive: Not moving a lot on a regular basis can increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can lead to damage of your arteries and increase your heart disease risk.
  • Poor dental health: Unhealthy teeth and gums can lead to germs entering your blood stream and traveling to your heart. This in turn can lead to a form of heart disease known as endocarditis, or an inflammation of your heart's chambers and valves.

Lifestyle changes to lower risk of heart disease

Surgery and medications are a few ways to treat heart disease once it has already begun. However, certain lifestyle changes can also help, and in some cases, prevent heart disease from starting.

Stop smoking

Quitting smoking is not easy, but it could save your life. Not only does smoking increase your risk of lung diseases and certain cancers, but it also increases your risk of heart disease. If you need help quitting, you can contact Smokefree.gov for more resources.

Reduce fat and salt in the daily diet

Most adults should limit sodium intake to about 2,300 milligrams daily, while those who have a history of heart disease, or are at greater risk than others of heart disease, should stick to no more than 1,500 milligrams sodium daily.

When it comes to fat, you don't have to avoid fat to reduce heart disease risk, but just focus more on unsaturated fats from fatty fish like salmon, trout and tuna, as well as from plant-based sources like nuts, nut butters and seeds. These plant-based sources are more heart healthy than saturated fats from fatty meats, lard and butter, for example.

Move more

a senior couple performing stretches together

Try to move at least 30 minutes daily to keep your heart strong. Walking and other gentle movements like gardening and house cleaning, all count toward these 30 minutes.

Reduce or avoid alcohol intake

Unlike popular belief, any alcohol, even red wine, is not recommended to help reduce heart disease risk. In fact, research shows that 14 standard drinks of alcohol weekly, which was once considered a “standard intake” for men, can significantly increase one's risk for heart disease.

One standard drink of alcohol is equal to 12 ounces of beer (about 5% alcohol per volume), 8 ounces of malt liquor (about 7% alcohol per volume), 5 ounces of wine (about 12% alcohol per volume), or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (about 40% alcohol per volume). Therefore, try to limit intake of alcohol as much as possible because studies show that no amount of alcohol is healthy for your body or mind.

Manage stress

Research shows that using methods such as HRV biofeedback, or relaxation type breathing exercises, to manage stress can help improve heart health outcomes. You can also manage stress through methods such as talk therapy, yoga, meditation and exercise, for example.

Take care of your dental health

Brushing your teeth and gums twice daily, flossing your teeth daily and visiting the dentist twice a year can all help reduce your risk of heart disease. Such lifestyle behaviors can prevent gum disease, tooth loss and bacterial infections that can all increase risk of heart disease.

What is a heart healthy diet?

Put simply, a heart healthy diet is one that includes foods that help support the health of your body and heart. However, the guidelines for such a way of eating may differ depending on who you talk to. The following heart healthy diet guidelines are based on evidence-based research from health experts.

Research shows that eating regimens like the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) as well as the Mediterranean diet are effective ways to lower risk of heart disease.

The DASH diet consists of the following guidelines:

  • Consume plenty of fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils and whole grains.
  • Reduce intake of foods that are high in saturated fats such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products and fried foods.
  • Reduce sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams daily by reducing salt you add to your food, limiting intake of canned and pre-packaged foods, and eating fresher versus deli meats, sausage, hot dogs and other pre-seasoned meat products.
  • Use herbs, spices and other low-sodium seasoning versus salt when flavoring foods.

The Mediterranean diet consists of the following guidelines:

  • Consume plenty of fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole-grains, nuts and seeds.
  • Use healthy fats like olive oil for cooking and flavoring foods.
  • Have a moderate intake of dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry.
  • Low amounts of red meat.
  • Optional low to moderate amounts of wine.

Heart healthy meals and snack ideas

If you want to eat a more heart healthy diet each day, you don't really need to follow a special diet though. By simply reducing your saturated fat intake, limiting sodium intake and eating more fiber in your daily routine, you can reap heart health benefits without sacrificing flavor and enjoyment of your meals and snacks.

And as you'll notice, eggs are part of a heart healthy diet. In fact, research shows that one egg a day can help reduce one's risk of heart disease and stroke. Let's look at some meal and snack ideas that fit perfectly within the heart healthy lifestyle.

Heart healthy meal ideas

A balanced, heart-healthy meal should consist of a source of protein, fiber-rich whole-grain or starchy vegetable (rice, corn, beans, potato, sweet potato), a non-starchy vegetable (leafy greens, carrots, green beans, etc.) as well as a healthy fat source (plant-based oil, butter, avocado, nuts and/or seeds).

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal prepared with low-fat milk or plant-based milk and topped with blueberries and a teaspoon or two of brown sugar.
  • Plain Greek yogurt mixed with sliced strawberries, blueberries or other diced fruit and drizzled with honey.
  • Scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes, onions and peppers with a side of whole-grain toast and a piece of fruit like a banana, apple or orange.
  • Whole-grain toast topped with sliced avocado and low-fat turkey bacon with a side of sliced peaches in their own juice.

Lunch

  • Romaine lettuce salad topped with grape tomatoes, sliced onion and baked/grilled skinless chicken breast or salmon with Greek yogurt dressing.
  • Baby spinach salad with skinless turkey breast, dried cranberries, whole-wheat croutons and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
  • Whole-wheat bread sandwich topped with skinless chicken or turkey breast, lettuce, sliced tomato and Swiss cheese with a piece of fruit on the side.
  • Low sodium bouillon-based soup (clear or tomato-based broth versus cream base) chock full of diced vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, as well as corn, green beans and peas; whole-grain crackers or croutons as a topping; add protein like diced chicken, turkey, lean beef or tofu.

Dinner

  • Skinless chicken or turkey with a baked potato or sweet potato and steamed vegetables like corn, carrots, green beans or broccoli.
  • Baked or grilled salmon, trout, or cod fish with steamed brown rice and broccoli or green beans.
  • Spaghetti with marinara sauce and diced or ground turkey, soy protein or chicken with steamed vegetables of your preference on the side.
  • Baked or grilled pork tenderloin with roasted vegetables (drizzled with olive oil) like diced sweet potato, carrots or Brussel sprouts, for example.

Heart healthy snack ideas

When you enjoy a snack, it's important to always pair a fruit, vegetable or whole-grain food with a protein-rich food to help satisfy your appetite in between meals and provide essential nutrients in your daily routine.

Savory

  • Baby carrots with hummus.
  • Sliced bell pepper, baby carrots, grape tomatoes or broccoli spears with Greek yogurt dressing.
  • Whole-grain crackers with cheddar cheese and sliced tomato.
  • Cottage cheese with diced fruit or sliced veggies.

Sweet

  • Apple slices or a banana with peanut butter.
  • Sliced strawberries or blueberries with low or non-fat plain Greek yogurt.
  • Diced fruit in its own juice or with no added sugar.
  • Almonds sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon sugar.

How can you adopt a heart healthy lifestyle today?

Letting go of long held lifestyle behaviors in exchange for new ones is not easy. But you don't have to change everything all at once. Just take your heart healthy lifestyle improvements one at a time. Maybe start eating one cup more of vegetables each day first. Then, start moving for 10 minutes more per day than usual. If you need help reducing your alcohol intake or need support to quit smoking, you can make an appointment with your health care provider for resources.

Each small change you make will add up to great benefits for your heart health over time. And if you need help starting such a lifestyle, never hesitate to ask a professional such as a registered dietitian, exercise specialist or psychologist for help with healthy eating, exercise or stress management, respectively. Call your insurance company to see if such provider appointments and other health and wellness resources such as fitness center discounts are covered by your plan.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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