Your genes don't ordain heart disease. Researchers are learning more about the lifestyle factors that predict heart health, and these are in your hands. A Harvard study of nearly 85,000 women identified these five healthy habits.
- Don't smoke.
- Drink at least half a glass of wine, or equivalent alcohol consumption, each day (but not more than a full glass, experts say).
- Get at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a healthy diet. It should be low in trans fats but high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and folate; it should also have a lower glycemic load and a higher polyunsaturated-to-saturated fat ratio.
When three of the five healthy lifestyle factors above were present, risk for coronary heart disease over 14 years was reduced by 57%; when four were present, risk was reduced by 66%; and when all five factors were present, risk was reduced by 83%, the study found.
Stress as a key factor
Other ways you can lower your risk for heart disease include keeping blood pressure at 120/80 or below and minimizing stress. "I think we greatly underappreciate the interplay between stress, our emotions, and our risk for heart disease," says Laurence S. Sperling, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. He says stress constricts the arteries and increases the stickiness of blood platelets, setting the stage for a blood clot. Watch a video of Dr. Sperling explaining why he thinks stress is an even more significant risk factor than the current research suggests.
"Many lives could be saved and much misery could be avoided if people and doctors alike got more aggressive about heart disease prevention," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the NYU Women's Heart Program.
"Ninety percent of women who die suddenly of heart disease had at least one risk factor that could have been prevented or treated," she says.
"People don't think it's a problem until you reach a certain age," says Jeffrey Frame, PhD, a professor of dietetics at Murray State University. But studies show that even children and teens can have streaks of plaque in their arteries, especially if they smoke or eat a lot of fatty foods.