Our 21st century lifestyle is bumping up our risk of heart disease. The convenience of cars and fast food, coupled with high-stress jobs, too little sleep, and a floundering economy is creating a toxic environment for our heart health. "Over the last couple of decades, the risk for cardiovascular disease has decreased, but now we may be reaching an inflection point, where the risks will climb again if we fail to manage how we live," says Marc Gillinov, a cardiovascular surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and coauthor of Heart 411: The Only Guide to Heart Health You'll Ever Need (Three Rivers Press, 2012).
We can't take this vital organ for granted, as no one is immune to heart disease. But heart disease is largely preventable, notes Gillinov. New studies are shining light on a few surprising risk factors, while offering fresh insight on how to keep your heart ticking for many years. Consider:
Cultivate a positive attitude—it does the heart good. The mind-body connection is being increasingly recognized as important to a thriving heart. Harvard School of Public Health researchers Julia Boehm and Laura Kubzansky recently completed a literature review examining the link between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular disease. They learned that optimistic people can cut their risk of a first heart attack by 50 percent compared to glass-half-empty types. "We found that people with [a] greater level of well-being tend to engage in healthy behaviors and have better biological functioning," says Boehm. Most of the studies controlled for obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, and depression, and found optimistic views were beneficial over and above these traditional risk factors, she notes. Every day, count your blessings, practice kind acts to others, socialize, and develop relationships you feel good about—all for the good of your heart.
[See: 8 Ways to Become an Optimist]
Beware of inflammation. What's also new to the heart-health equation is the recognition of the effects of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis and lupus, says Gillinov. Inflammation has been shown to cause plaque buildup in arteries and destruction of blood vessels. A review of observational studies published online in the March 2012 issue of the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases found that patients who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were 48 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease when compared to the general population. If you have RA, talk to your doctor about taking extra care to safeguard your heart.
Take stock of your sleep. Studies show you're more prone to inflammation in your body, too, if you're not getting enough sleep. And who doesn't want a good night's sleep? People (more commonly men) who experience sleep apnea, a condition marked by repeated pauses in breathing, are more at risk for heart disease. These short periods of breathlessness can cause blood pressure to skyrocket, says Gillinov, and over time, this is hazardous to our hearts. See your doctor if you suspect you have sleep apnea, as treatments can be effective.
Know your numbers and ideal range. Among the most important are your blood cholesterol levels. Studies show that low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a transporter of cholesterol in the blood, is the key as it predicts heart disease more than does total cholesterol. Too much LDL can cause dangerous plaque buildup in arteries. Your LDL level should be less than 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, removes bad cholesterol from arteries and should be greater than 40 mg/dL for men and greater than 45 mg/dL for women. Total cholesterol, a measure of all of your lipid levels, should be less than 200 mg/dL, and triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood that is stored as unused calories) should be less than 150 mg/dL.
Know your blood pressure numbers, the force against your arteries as your heart pumps blood. Normal numbers are 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg) or lower. High blood pressure can damage your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease.
Lastly, BMI (body mass index) should be 25 or less. Higher and you're in the overweight to obese category. Achieving a normal body weight affects virtually everything else—lowering blood pressure, increasing HDL, combating inflammation, and lowering a risk for diabetes, notes Nathan Wong, director of the University California, Irvine's Heart Disease Prevention Program. Be true to yourself with your actual numbers. If they are askew, contact your physician.