Take heart. Though heart disease may be the No. 1 killer of Americans, you have an excellent chance of not being among the 1.25 million people who will have a heart attack in any given year.
Some factors associated with heart disease, like age and genetics, may be uncontrollable, but there are plenty of others that can—and should—be addressed.
"The number one way to prevent a heart attack is to have a healthy lifestyle. That blows everything else out of the water," says Dr. Robert Ostfeld, associate attending cardiologist and professor of clinical medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Some people can reduce their risk of heart disease by simply learning about their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Take cholesterol. LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) is considered "bad" cholesterol and should be kept low. On the other hand, HDL (High Density Lipoproteins) is "good" cholesterol and thus high levels are desirable.
Ideal blood pressure is around 120/80. Generally, the lower the better, while anything over 140 is unhealthy and considered hypertension.
Then there's body weight, which is largely a function of diet and exercise.
Though overall weight plays an important role, you should also concentrate on reducing abdominal fat; women should keep their waists at about 35 inches, while a man's waist size should be, at most, 40 inches.
“Working just two servings of a heart-healthy fish (like salmon) per week can reduce your risk of heart disease by 36% and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables daily can help bring down your risk by 30%” says Marissa Lippert, a registered dietitian based in New York City.
That said, if you do think you’re having a heart attack, get to the hospital as quickly as possible.
“We expect less than 5 percent of people to die if they reach the hospital,” says Dr. George Rogers, former chairman of the Board of Governors of the American College of Cardiology. “It used to be the death rate after making it the hospital was in the 20% range 25 years ago.”
So, rather than learning about these rules after you've become part of the lucky 95 percent, get your mind and your heart in the right place.
Five Things to Prevent a Heart Attack
- Get Physical: Though getting into a workout routine can be tedious, it's necessary in getting your heart in shape. The good news is that moderate aerobic activity like walking or riding a bike four to five days a week will usually suffice. Keep in mind that someone who is obese or lives a sedentary lifestyle should see a doctor before starting a vigorous exercise program. Once the doctor approves, there should be no excuse not to exercise; it's as much of a necessity as eating and breathing.
- Heart-Healthy Diet: It’s important to maintain your weight and one of the best ways to do that is by eating a healthy diet. Limit saturated trans-fats, like cheese, butter and fatty meats, and have about three tablespoons per day of monounsaturated fats that are high in omega-3s, like olive oil and fish oils. Also, antioxidants have been shown to help ward off disease and can be found in high levels in berries. Above all, remember that no matter how healthy a food is, don't overeat. The key is weight maintenance and lowering total cholesterol.
- Do Not Smoke: All tobacco consumption is bad and can cause you to have a heart attack, whether you’re a social smoker or have a habit. “Even 30 minutes of second-hand smoke exposure can lead to decreased arterial function,” says Dr. Ostfeld.
- Stress Relief: Everyone has stress, and unfortunately, too many people dismiss it as a life threatening factor. Having a little too much stress can put a lot of demand on the heart and its vessels by speeding up your heart rate. Luckily, stress can be controlled in simple ways like taking deep breaths or by finding a place to simply relax. It also helps to get more sleep and to address signs of depression, even if you have to see a therapist.
- Regular Doctor Visits: In the end, your doctor knows best when it comes to addressing your heart health. Be sure to schedule a visit with him annually to check your weight, find out your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and discuss lifestyle factors that can significantly affect heart disease. Also take the time to ask any questions because being in the know can only help you.