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Making Changes to Avoid Heart Disease

Your heart is a vital organ that keeps your body functioning. Unfortunately, many people don't treat it that way. They may not realize that their daily habits and lifestyle can overwork and damage their heart. So, take care of your heart and yourself. Start by making the following lifestyle changes.

Get smoke-free

Nicotine causes blood vessels to narrow. This makes it hard for blood to reach your heart muscle. Nicotine temporarily raises blood pressure and the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke deprives the heart of oxygen. That's why smokers have twice the risk of having a heart attack than nonsmokers. So, if you smoke, it pays to quit. Or, talk with your doctor about ways to quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke, which is also bad for your heart.

Eat heart-friendly foods

Eating fatty foods can lead to the buildup of fat deposits in your arteries. This can lead to blockages in the arteries of your heart and may eventually cause a heart attack. To help avoid a buildup of fat in your arteries limit foods that are high in animal fats. These include fatty meats, whole-milk products, egg yolks, and fried foods. If possible, choose their low-fat counterparts, such as nonfat milk or low-fat dairy products. In addition, choose cooking oils made with unsaturated fats, such as canola and olive oils. They are healthier than oils made with saturated fats. But since they are still types of fat, use them in limited amounts. Also, try to eat 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables daily. They're good for you, and they fill you up.

Set exercise goals

Exercise gets your heart pumping. This helps your body use oxygen better and makes your heart stronger. It can also decrease your blood pressure and the amount of fat in your blood. Start your exercise program slowly, especially if you haven't been active for a while. Begin with short sessions, such as a 10-minute walk. Gradually increase the length of your workouts; work up to 30 minutes on most days of the week. Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Watch your blood pressure

Make sure your blood pressure is in the optimal range or under control. Blood pressure is the force exerted on the walls of your blood vessels as blood flows through them. The harder your heart works, the greater your risk for having a heart attack. The first number in a blood pressure measurement shows the force of the blood against artery walls when the heart contracts; it is called "systolic" pressure. The lower number is the pressure of blood against artery walls when the heart is resting; it is called "diastolic." According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a normal blood pressure is less than 120/80; systolic readings of 120 to 139 or diastolic readings of 80 to 89 are considered "prehypertensive"; and a systolic pressure of 140 or greater, or a diastolic pressure of 90 and above is considered hypertension or high blood pressure.

Eating less salt may help you lower blood pressure. Try adding flavor to your meals with other spices or foods, such as onion and garlic. Make sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat dairy products. Get an adequate amount of potassium in your diet (at least 4,700 mg a day). Limit the amount of saturated and total fats you eat. Also, try to lose weight if you are overweight, exercise regularly and limit alcohol. Your doctor may even give you medication to lower your blood pressure.

Watch your weight

The AHA considers obesity to be a major risk factor for heart disease. If are overweight and you lose even 5 to 10 percent of your weight, you can decrease your risk. Reaching or maintaining an ideal weight also helps lower your blood pressure and cholesterol level.

Reduce stress

Continued and elevated levels of stress have been consistently linked to health problems including an increased risk for heart disease and cardiac death. Stress is frequently associated with anger, another emotion that is tightly linked with risk of cardiac death. Common ways of dealing with stress, such as overeating and smoking, can harm your heart. Keep your stress low by exercising, sharing your concerns with friends and family, and making some quiet time for yourself each day. Spending 15 to 20 minutes every day doing something you enjoy is a simple, but effective, step toward a less stressful life.

The AHA recommends regular screening for your risk for heart disease beginning at age 20. Screening includes measuring blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and pulse each regular health care visit or at least every two years, and getting a cholesterol profile every five years for normal-risk people.