The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 655,381 deaths from heart disease in 2018. That’s enough to fill up the Big House at the University of Michigan six and a half times. For many people, heart disease runs in the family. That’s an uncontrollable risk. Yet, according to the American Heart Association, 80% of heart disease is preventable. The first step in heart health is to be aware of these six habits that can harm the heart:
If those few extra pounds keep adding up year after year, over time it can cause a real strain on the heart. Excess weight can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It can also add to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. All these things harm the heart. Learning how to calculate and track body mass index is a good way to see what a healthy weight should be according to a person’s gender and height.
A little alcohol is okay. In fact, some studies show that a glass of red wine can be beneficial. The key here is to moderate the amount of alcohol a person consumes. But more than three drinks a day damages the heart. Physicians recommend limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
The COVID pandemic has changed how individuals work and live; many people now sit all day at their desks, then binge shows on the couch all evening. This lack of physical activity can increase the amount of fat and sugar in a person’s blood, which leads to many conditions that harm the heart. The good news is, even brief spurts of physical activity help, like standing up each hour and walking around the room.
Put simply: don’t smoke – this includes the practice of “vaping”. The nicotine in cigarette smoke is dangerous to the heart. It raises blood pressure, increases heart rate, and increases the risk of blood clots, all of which make it harder for the heart to work well. Smoking also increases the risk of fatty plaque build-up in the arteries, which blocks blood flow and causes heart attack and stroke. Also, researchers have found that in addition to high levels of nicotine, people using vape pens also inhale toxic chemicals, heavy metals and carcinogens into their bodies; these materials create serious short and long-term health impacts.
People react to stress in different ways. For many, increased or uncontrolled stress can raise blood pressure. It can also lead people to behaviors that harm the heart, like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, being inactive or unhealthy eating. Learning to manage stress can help people feel better, and it can help the heart.
For many people, a good portion of their diet comes from foods that are high in sugar, fat or salt, all of which raise the risk of heart attack and stroke. The culprits may seem obvious here – fast food, rich desserts, soda. But high sugar, fat or salt can also be found in lunchmeat, fruit juice and other processed and packaged foods. It’s best to limit these foods and add fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and low-fat fish and poultry. February is Heart Health Awareness Month, but these heart-harming habits can be improved any time of the year. Individuals should talk with their health care provider for more information. James D. Grant, M.D., is senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Photo credit: miodrag ignjatovic