“In America, heart disease is the number one killer,” says David Montgomery, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute. “That’s more than cancer or any other condition you can imagine.”
The good news, he says, is that heart disease is preventable.
“Even if you have a predisposition for certain kinds of heart disease, there are ways to actually reduce your risk,” says Dr. Montgomery. “A lot of it depends on your lifestyle: what you’re eating, your level of activity and the amount of stress that’s in your life.”
Experts have learned from decades of research that lifestyle modifications and certain medications can halt and even reverse the progression of heart disease.
“This is the news we’re trying to get out to people,” says Dr. Montgomery. “Your parents’ medical history doesn’t have to be yours. You can do something about it.”
A heart-healthy meal plan
One of the first steps in preventing cardiovascular disease is examining your diet. While a complete diet makeover may be overwhelming, Dr. Montgomery recommends homing in on two food groups – fats and fresh produce – for two very different reasons.
If you decrease your saturated and trans fat intake while increasing your vegetable and fruit intake, you can significantly lower your risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
“You’ve got to get your saturated fat and trans fat [intake] as low as you possibly can,” he explains. “We know that if you do, you can actually decrease your risk of coronary heart disease by 40 to 50 percent.”
Saturated fat is usually solid at room temperature and is found in red meats, dairy, eggs and other animal products, as well as in many baked goods and plant oils (such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils). The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 7 percent of your daily caloric intake come from saturated fats.
Even more dangerous are industrially manufactured trans fats, which can be found in fried and packaged foods, such as doughnuts, pizza, crackers and stick margarines. Check nutrition labels for “partially hydrogenated oils,” another name for this type of fat. The AHA recommends getting no more than 1 percent of your daily calories from trans fat.
If possible, avoid trans fats completely.
“There are two groups of people when it comes to cardiovascular disease and eating,” says Dr. Montgomery. “One group doesn’t know what to eat and how much to eat. The second group knows better, but doesn’t always do better.
"I think these people think heart disease just can’t happen to them,” he says. “Unfortunately, it can happen to them and in many cases, it is happening to them.”
Increase your activity level
With your doctor’s permission, developing a regular exercise routine can make a huge impact on your heart health. You only need 30 minutes a day of cardiovascular exercise five times a week, which meets the AHA’s exercise recommendations.
If your schedule doesn’t allow for 30 minutes of daily activity, you can split your workout into two 15-minute sessions.
“This is great news because if you’re pressed for time and not exercising, that should no longer be an excuse,” says Jennifer Hopper, M.S., ACSM-HFS-CET, manager of Piedmont Atlanta Health & Fitness Center.
Some ideas to get you started:
- Walk for 30 minutes most days of the week.
- If you can’t make it to a gym, purchase a few exercise DVDs so you can work out in the comfort of your own living room.
- Take a class, whether it’s yoga, Zumba, aerobics, spinning or weight training.
- Hire a medically-based exercise physiologist for one to three months. A trainer can develop a personalized exercise plan that meets your needs and fitness goals, and can teach you proper form.
- If you struggle with joint pain, try swimming. Many fitness centers and YMCAs offer pool access with a membership.
- Track your steps with a pedometer, take the stairs when possible and park as far away from the store as you safely can to squeeze more exercise into your daily activities.
By keeping anxiety to a minimum, you can reduce the amount of stress on your heart as well as your risk for a serious cardiac event. Yacoba Hudson, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Piedmont Physicians Group, recommends the following stress reduction tactics:
- Maintain a regular exercise routine, with a combination of cardiovascular activity, weight training and stretching.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you consume, and never drink and drive.
- Stop smoking and don’t turn to cigarettes when you are anxious.
- Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
- Meditate, pray, get a massage, knit or read a book – any activity that helps you relax.
- Eat a healthy diet and save the treats for special occasions, like a party. It is okay to indulge occasionally, but don’t turn splurging into a weeklong event.
- If you have too many commitments, “delegate, delegate, delegate.” For example, ask your children to help clean up after dinner or your spouse to pick up the dry cleaning.
When lifestyle changes are not enough
While many people can reverse cardiovascular disease with stress management, diet and exercise, for some people that is not enough, says Dr. Montgomery. For example, some people with genetic predispositions could run marathons and maintain a healthy diet, yet still have cholesterol levels that will cause coronary disease or predispose them to strokes.
In these cases, a doctor can prescribe medication to lower cholesterol levels. “The bottom line is that cardiovascular disease, by and large, is preventable through lifestyle changes like diet, exercise and stress reduction, and medications when needed,” says Dr. Montgomery.