25 Things You're Doing That Put You At Risk for a Heart Attack
You pour it out, wear it on your sleeve and love people from the bottom of it. But do you take care—we mean, proper care—of your heart?
Although most of us grew up with warnings about heart disease, and news stories about how to prevent it, too many of us aren't doing enough to maintain good heart health. Worse, we're sabotaging ourselves with behaviors we might not realize are bad for our hearts, at exactly the age when it's important to be extra-vigilant.
For decades, heart disease has been the No. 1 killer of Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 610,000 people die of it each year, costing the country over $20 billion annually. And the American Heart Association says that almost half of adults have some form of cardiovascular illness. That includes the almost 715,000 people who have a heart attack each year — over half a million for the first time.
The good news: You can make quick, easy changes to your lifestyle to cut your risk, and add years to your life, and it's never too late. Here are the top 25 things you're probably doing that put you in danger—from us to you, with all our heart.
Not Getting Your Blood Pressure Checked
Is your blood pressure in a healthy range? Are you sure? It might be higher than you think. In 2018, the American Heart Association lowered the guidelines for healthy blood pressure from 140/90 (and 150/80 for those older than 65) to 130/80 for all adults. According to Harvard Medical School, that means 70 to 79 percent of men over 55 technically have hypertension. Over time, that can weaken the walls of blood vessels, increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack and dementia.
Recommendation: To lower your risk, get your blood pressure checked soon — and regularly. Follow a heart-healthy diet, lose weight and stay active. Read on to discover the best foods to eat.
Not Knowing Your Cholesterol Level
As we age, the body produces more cholesterol, which can build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. In women, menopause causes LDL ("bad") cholesterol to rise and HDL ("good") to drop. Experts advise getting your cholesterol checked every five years, but older adults may need it done more frequently. Your total cholesterol level should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), with an LDL level of less than 100 mg/dL and an HDL level of 60 mg/dL or higher.
Recommendation: To keep your levels in a healthy range, eat a diet low in saturated fat and trans fats, get exercise and maintain an ideal weight.
Eating Too Much Saturated Fat
There's been some confusion around fats and cholesterol and heart health in recent years, but the latest science is this: According to the American Heart Association, eating foods high in saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol in your blood, which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. What foods are high in sat fat? Red meat, chicken with skin, butter and cheese.
Recommendation: For good heart health, the AHA recommends that you consume only 13 grams of saturated fat per day. (For context, a 1 oz slice of Swiss cheese contains 5 grams of saturated fat. A McDonald's Quarter Pounder With Cheese contains exactly 13 grams.) Focus your diet on lean protein and as many colorful fruits and vegetables as possible.
Not Getting Enough Exercise
Lace up those old Reebok Pumps. The AHA's weekly exercise guidelines for heart health haven't changed, even though only about 20 percent of us follow them: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, plus muscle-strengthening exercise two times a week.
Recommendation: Some examples of moderate-intensity exercise are brisk walking, dancing or gardening; vigorous exercise is running, hiking or swimming. If you think you can't make 150 minutes, get moving anyway. Any amount of exercise is better for your heart than none.
Drinking Sugary Drinks
It's no secret that too many of us are drinking too many of our daily calories. And what's bad for your waistline is bad for your heart. A March 2019 study published in the journal Circulation found that drinking sugary drinks was associated with an increased risk of death, particularly from cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: Switch out that soda for water or seltzer without artificial sweeteners. (Read on to find out why diet soda isn't the answer.) "Drinking water in place of sugary drinks is a healthy choice that could contribute to longevity," says Vasanti Malik, the study's lead author and a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Eating Too Much Sugar, Period
Consuming too much added sugar — the sugar that manufacturers add to foods to sweeten them or extend their shelf life — won't just blow your pants budget; it's a major risk factor for heart disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, adult men consume 24 teaspoons of sugar a day, the equivalent of 384 calories! "The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke," says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Recommendation: The American Heart Association advises that adults consume no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams) of added sugar daily. That's about the amount in a 12-ounce can of soda. To learn how to reduce your sugar cravings and lose a pound a week, check out the 14-day plan Zero Sugar Diet!
Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Alcohol's effect on your liver and your beer gut are well-documented, but excessive drinking takes a toll on your heart, too. "Too much alcohol can increase blood pressure, and triglycerides, which can increase your risk of heart disease," says Dr. Sarin Seema of EHE Health.
Recommendation: How much is too much? Seema recommends that women should have no more than one drink a day, and men should say when at two.
You Haven't Asked Your Doctor About Heart Testing
Little-known fact: Standard heart tests at your annual physical — and ECG and, in some cases, a stress test — aren't good at detecting clogged arteries until they're 70 percent blocked. You could ace both tests and still be on your way to a heart attack. Luckily, more advanced imaging and blood tests are available, along with genetic screening, to uncover arterial issues before they lead to heart disease.
Recommendation: Talk to your doctor about your personal and family health history to determine if it's time for a more extensive peek under your hood.
Drinking Diet Soda
Studies show that people who drink diet sodas and other artificially sweetened beverages have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. That's when your body has trouble processing insulin, which is a precursor to Type 2 diabetes. And that's a heart attack risk.
Recommendation: Swap out sugary beverages and diet drinks with classic H20, seltzers or homemade spa water. There are some excellent seltzer options that are completely unsweetened (LaCroix or Polar), are infused with tea (Sound) or have low amounts of natural sugar from a dash of fruit (Spindrift). Avoid any with artificial sweeteners.
You Have Untreated A-Fib
One in four Americans over the age of 40 could develop a type of irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation (AF or A-Fib). According to the Harvard Health Letter, because AF reduces the heart's pumping efficiency — by anywhere from 10 to 30 percent — it can lead to heart failure, angina and stroke.
Recommendation: If you're experiencing an irregular heartbeat — symptoms can include a fluttering in your chest, or you feel like your heartbeat is unusually rapid or slow — talk to your doctor, who can run basic tests like an ECG or refer you to a cardiologist, who may prescribe medication or other therapies.
The principle "too much of a good thing" applies to one of the best things of all: Sleep, particularly as we age. A review of research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that getting more than eight hours of shut-eye can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Nine hours comes with a moderate risk — and 11 hours was associated with a nearly 44 percent increase! (Un-fun fact: Oversleeping also increases your risk for dementia.)
Recommendation: The latest recommendation from sleep experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, is that adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night — no more, no less.
You're Socially Isolated
Turns out the lonely hearts' club is a literal thing — and not a group you want to join. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation can increase a person's risk of having a heart attack, according to a study published in the journal Heart. People who reported poor social relationships had a 29 percent higher risk of coronary disease, and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, than those with robust friendships. Why? Researchers believe loneliness increases chronic stress, a risk factor for heart disease.
Recommendation: Make it part of your routine to hit the gym, develop hobbies, take classes, call or Skype with friends or family. If you're feeling socially isolated or depressed, talk to your doctor about the best course of action. You might benefit from talk therapy too.
Carrying Around Extra Weight
Excess poundage weighs on your heart the most. Research shows that overweight people who achieve even modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of total body weight) reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: Know your healthy weight range. Eating a plant-heavy diet, reducing your consumption of empty calories and processed foods, and being more active are three of the easiest ways to get there. Don't undertake a trendy diet like Keto without talking to your doctor.
Not Having Enough Sex
This one's easy. A review of research published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that having sex once a month or less increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Although erectile dysfunction (ED) can be an indicator of heart disease, this review found an association between low sexual activity and heart disease independent of ED.
Recommendation: Get down to it. (Unfortunately, it's not clear from the study if masturbation had beneficial effects, but it couldn't hurt.)
Not Eating Enough Omega-3s…
Foods high in omega-3s are great for our heart. This type of unsaturated fatty acid may reduce inflammation throughout the body, decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure and decrease heart disease risk, the Mayo Clinic says.
Recommendation: Eat whole-food sources of omega-3s like lean fish, grass-fed beef, walnuts and omega-3 eggs. The National Institutes of Health recommend women get 1,100mg and men have 1,600mg of omega-3s daily. Don't take a shortcut by popping supplements; research indicates they may be ineffective.
… And Eating Too Many Omega-6s
Be on the lookout for omega-3's cousin. Consuming too many omega-6s can raise your risk of heart disease. Although this polyunsaturated fatty acid is essential for health, most Americans eat too much. Scientists believe an excess of omega-3s can trigger inflammation throughout the body, which is bad for your heart. They're most commonly found in vegetable and corn oils, mayonnaise and salad dressings.
Recommendation: Experts say vegetable and seed oils are the biggest sources of omega-6s in the American diet. Cook with heart-healthy olive oil instead.
You Have Uncontrolled Diabetes
The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes increases dramatically over age 40, so much that the American Diabetes Association recommends a regular diabetes screening for all adults over 45. Diabetes causes sugars to build up in the blood; over time, that damages arteries and can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: Get screened during your annual physical. If you're on medication for your diabetes, make sure you're compliant with dosages and monitoring.
Cigarette smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And lung cancer isn't the only major threat — toxins in cigarette smoke damage the lining of your arteries, causing them to thicken, while reducing the amount of oxygen in the blood. That spikes your risk of a heart attack.
Recommendation: Quit smoking ASAP; see your doctor for help. (It's never too late: Even people who quit smoking between the ages of 65 to 69 can add one to four years to their lives, the Cleveland Clinic says.) And if you don't smoke, this is not a golden-years habit you want to pick up.
A Sedentary Desk Job
A 2017 study at the University of Warwick found that workers with desk jobs had bigger waists and a higher risk of heart disease than those with more active jobs. What's more, workers' bad (LDL) cholesterol increased and good (HDL) cholesterol decreased with each hour beyond five hours of sitting a day.
Recommendation: If you work a desk job, converting to a treadmill desk might be a bit hardcore, but you should stand and move around as much as possible during the day.
Ignoring Your Family History
According to research published in the journal Circulation, men with a family history of heart disease had nearly a 50 percent increased risk of developing cardiovascular problems. The National Institutes of Health calls that family history a primary risk for heart disease. Are you doomed? No. But it's all the more reason to prioritize heart health.
Recommendation: Make sure your doctor knows about your family history and ask if any additional screening tests would be a good idea. "Your family medical history is a key, but complex, risk factor for heart disease," said Dr. Pradeep Natarajan, a cardiologist with Massachusetts General Hospital, in Harvard Men's Health Watch. "The risk factor will always be there, but the longer you live without developing heart disease with healthy behaviors, the smaller its effect."
Eating Ultra-Processed Food
We know that one key to heart health is to eat more whole foods and less processed junk, but experts have pinpointed a new enemy: What they call "ultra-processed food." Two May 2019 studies published in The BMJ link highly processed food with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of early death. What's "ultra-processed"? The researchers listed "sausages, mayonnaise, potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolates and candies, artificially sweetened beverages and whisky, gin and rum." In other words, stuff you know you should be avoiding anyway. In other studies, highly processed food consumption has been correlated with higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — all risk factors for a heart attack.
Recommendation: Limit the proportion of ultra-processed food you eat, and increase unprocessed and minimally processed foods—like any food recommended by Eat This, Not That!
Eating Too Much Salt
Studies show that most Americans consume about 3,400mg of sodium daily — way over the recommended 2,300mg (which amounts to about one teaspoon of salt). High salt intake is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, which in turn ups your chance of having a heart attack.
Recommendation: Not only should you put down the salt shaker (according to the American Heart Association, ¼ teaspoon of salt is 575mg of sodium) but limit your consumption of fast food and processed foods, which tend to come loaded with sodium. They have so much, in fact, that if you eat them frequently, you might be over a healthy limit even if you don't add salt to your meals.
Stressing Out All The Time
We all have stress, and no one wants to be called a snowflake, but science is clear that chronic stress is really bad for your body. "When stress is excessive, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure, also called hypertension, to asthma to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome," said Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University. Hypertension is bad for your heart — and stress leads people to engage in other unhealthy behavior that can tax your ticker, including drinking too much alcohol and stress-eating.
Recommendation: Exercising, not smoking, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight are good ways to deal with stress, said Schiffrin.
If you snore, it might be more than a nuisance for your bedmate. Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, during which breathing can stop for as long a minute before your brain wakes you up to resume breathing. Sleep apnea has been associated with high blood pressure and other health problems. And according to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring itself is associated with a risk of cardiovascular disease. People who snore have a higher chance of experiencing a thickening in the carotid artery, which doctors think might be caused by the vibrations of snoring.
Recommendation: If you snore, or your partner points out your snoring, talk to your doctor—if not for yourself, then for your bedmate.
Not Getting Enough Sleep
Americans are chronically sleep deprived, and not only does it make us a real piece of work in the mornings, it's bad for heart health. According to a study done by the CDC, people who slept less than 7 hours a night reported having more heart attacks — along with obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, three conditions that lead to heart disease.
Recommendation: For optimum health and to lower your heart attack risk, get seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night.