Heart Disease: Symptoms, Risk Factors, and 6 Tips for Prevention

Heart disease affects hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Learn the steps you can take to keep your heart healthy.


Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States? The CDC estimates it kills one American every 34 seconds — in 2020 alone, it took the lives of almost 700,000 people. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to prevent it.

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What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a general term that includes many types of heart conditions, from heart attacks and strokes to arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat). However, coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common kind. It occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart. This buildup can be contributed by many factors like:

  • High blood pressure:

Blood pressure is the force your heart puts on your artery walls every time it beats. It’s measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) using two numbers.

Systolic pressure (the top number) measures the pressure when your heart contracts to pump blood throughout your body. Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) measures the pressure when your heart rests to allow blood back into your heart.

A normal blood pressure reading is 120/80. If either number is too high, it could increase your risk of blood vessel damage, so it’s important to keep these numbers in check.

  • High cholesterol:

A healthy amount of cholesterol in your blood is essential for making hormones and building cells. But when you have too much, it can form plaque on your artery walls.

There are two types of cholesterol. LDL is the bad kind that can lead to plaque formation. HDL is the good cholesterol that carries excess LDL cholesterol back to the liver to be processed and removed.

Triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, can also increase your risk for heart disease. So make sure you have all these levels checked on a regular basis.

  • Diabetes:

Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the heart and the nerves that control them. The artery walls may also develop fatty deposits, making the heart muscle stiffer. If you have diabetes, it’s especially important to be on top of your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

  • Obesity:

Excess weight can cause a buildup of fat in the arteries. It can also make you more susceptible to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

  • Genetics:

If you have a family history of heart conditions, you’re at greater risk for the disease. It’s also possible you share similar environments or lifestyle behaviors that can put you at risk.

Heart Disease Prevention

The good news is, adopting healthy dietary and lifestyle habits using the tips below can help prevent heart-related conditions:

  1. Eat a heart-healthy diet rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and lean protein, which can help lower total blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. Steel-cut oatmeal, fatty fish, blueberries, and leafy greens are just a few great heart-healthy options.
  2. Limit your intake of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars which can contribute to weight gain, high blood pressure, and an increase in LDL cholesterol. The trick is to avoid processed foods and choose whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, seeds, and whole grains.
  3. Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise, such as walking, swimming, or dancing, for at least 30 minutes a day can help improve circulation and lower blood pressure.
  4. Don’t smoke. Smoking can increase plaque in your blood vessels. So say no to cigarettes.
  5. Sleep at least seven hours per night. When you sleep, your body repairs its cells and tissues. Lack of sleep can raise your blood pressure, putting excess stress on your heart.
  6. Manage your stress. Stress releases cortisol that can elevate cholesterol, glucose levels, and blood pressure. Try to manage it by meditating, taking a yoga class, getting a massage, or seeking support from friends.

By creating and maintaining healthy diet and lifestyle habits, you can keep your heart healthy long into the future. Meeting with a registered dietitian — a personal nutrition coach — is a great first step!

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