A long life free of heart disease does not come just from controlling the standard measures like blood pressure and cholesterol. Sure, keeping tabs on these indicators is essential to gauging your heart's health, but a few other numbers—some surprising—can be meaningful as well.
It's awareness worth having. The American Heart Association (AHA) noted in its annual review for 2011 that while the death rate due to cardiovascular disease in the United States fell between 1996 and 2007, the burden of the disease is still high. One in nearly three deaths was related to heart disease in 2007.
U.S. News consulted with cardiology experts to round up the target numbers you should strive for to keep your ticker in good shape over the long haul.
[See: Best Heart-Healthy Diets]
Alcohol intake. Those fond of tipple may be dismayed, but the science on alcohol as an agent to promote heart health is just not definitive. "If you have heart disease, alcohol plays no role in your medicine cabinet; if [you do] not, alcohol is not the right way to reduce your risk," says Jonathan Whiteson, director of the Cardiovascular Rehabilitation Program at New York University Langone Medical Center. Some research has suggested that drinking red wine may increase one's HDL, or "good" cholesterol, but Whiteson notes that the boost is minimal. "Exercise [offers] a better increase in HDL," he says.
While he's not against a drink in a social setting, it's certainly not something folks—especially those with heart disease—should engage in with the idea that it will offer a heart benefit, says Whiteson. In fact, medications' effectiveness can be either hampered or heightened by alcohol, sometimes to a dangerous extent. (Common herbal supplements can interact with heart drugs, too). And drinking too much can lead to high blood pressure or increased blood levels of triglycerides, a type of fat.
Bottom line: The AHA suggests that otherwise healthy individuals who drink should do so in moderation. That's defined as one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. And be careful with that pour: The AHA defines a drink as one 12-ounce beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, 1.5 ounce of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.
Salt intake. Some experts say that the pervasive use of sodium in the American diet is wreaking havoc on our cardiovascular systems. "Sodium causes retention of fluid within the circulation, and if you're sodium-sensitive, it expands your blood volume and can contribute to high blood pressure, stroke, and other heart disease," explains Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
A report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that if Americans reduced daily salt intake by 3 grams, we could significantly lower the annual number of new cases of coronary heart disease (by between 60,000 and 120,000), stroke (by 32,000 to 66,000), heart attack (by 54,000 to 99,000), and even the number of deaths from any cause (by 44,000 to 92,000). The paper's authors noted previous research that showed the average American man consumes 10.4 grams of salt daily, while the average American woman gets 7.3 grams.
Bottom line: The AHA recommends Americans limit salt intake to 1.5 grams daily. Be wary: Sodium creeps in via unexpected sources, and it's not so much the salt shaker on our table that's to blame. Research suggests we get as much as 80 percent of our daily salt intake from processed foods. Some surprising foods loaded with salt include miso soup, cottage cheese, salsa, and dill pickles.
Sugar intake. It's not just the savory flavors that'll get you; sweets, too, can ultimately become a cause for concern, says the AHA. Like salt, sugar creeps into the processed foods that make up much of the American diet, and sweetened beverages—soda, juices, and sports drinks—are especially loaded with the stuff. Here's some disturbing math for you: A 12-ounce can of soda has about 8 teaspoons (or 33 grams) of added sugars, totaling about 130 calories. (A gram of sugar translates into 4 calories.)