Five Simple Measures for Heart Health
Living a more heart-healthy life can require major lifestyle changes but there are also some simple measures that can go a long way.
A major study1 found cardiovascular disease to have caused over 17 million deaths globally in 2017 alone. Yet, it is widely believed that as many as 80 percent of cases are preventable. Some prevention measures—such as switching to a plant-based diet2—require major lifestyle changes. While these are undoubtedly important to consider, there are also several smaller steps you can take today, to get started on living a more heart-healthy life.
Step One: Schedule a Blood Pressure Check
Do you know what your blood pressure is? When was the last time you had it checked? Up to half of heart attack and stroke events may be associated3 with high blood pressure, or “hypertension,” and only around one in five people worldwide4 with the condition have it under control. While treating elevated or high blood pressure may be complex, the first step is simple—schedule a check if it’s been a while since you’ve had one. The British National Health Service recommends5 people over 40 have their blood pressure taken every five years, with more frequent tests in certain high-risk cases. The US Department of Health and Human Services advises6 yearly checks for people over 40, and tests every three to five years for adults under 40 who aren’t in hypertension risk categories. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get a check done at a pharmacy, as well as at your doctor’s.
Walking about eight kilometres over the course of a week, at an average pace (three km per hour), cuts the risk of cardiovascular events by almost a third.
Step Two: Walk on Your Lunch Hour
Getting more exercise in your life doesn’t necessarily have to mean starting with intensive aerobics or long runs right away. Trying to keep pace with seasoned instructors can be discouraging for someone just starting out and gyms can be intimidating places for beginners. Experts say even going for short, light walks7 is enough to start making a difference, with the benefits increasing from there. Walking about eight kilometres over the course of a week, at an average pace (three km per hour), cuts the risk of cardiovascular events by almost a third. Similarly, this level of walking also reduces the risk of death by about a third if an event does happen. So, while you may still decide to up the intensity of your exercise routine later, a 15-20 minute walk at lunchtime, a round of yoga via video, or some light aerobics in the backyard is already a good start.
Step Three: Get Enough Sleep
If getting more heart health benefits from exercise requires less effort than you thought, this step is, quite literally, something you can do in your sleep. Getting enough sleep is often associated with feeling more refreshed and mentally alert. But your heart also needs the nightly rest as well as your brain. One 2019 study found8 patients who slept less than six hours a night on average had a 20 percent higher risk of having a heart attack. Meanwhile, oversleepers had a 34 percent higher risk. Expert advice9 is to aim to get between seven and nine hours a night for a healthy heart.
Step Four: Brush Your Teeth Regularly
Before your head hits the pillow, and again in the morning, brush your teeth for at least two minutes. American researchers recently found10 that people who don’t do this have a threefold higher risk of heart attacks, heart failure, or strokes. While the study did not determine whether or not brushing regularly actually causes risk factors to be lower, the correlation between better heart health and better oral health was enough for researchers to emphasize that there is no downside to having a healthier mouth.
Step Five: Check Your Family History
Do you know whether people in your family have a history of heart attack or stroke? If so, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will also have a similar cardiovascular event, but your risk may be higher. If you’re not sure, start checking to see whether anyone in your immediate family (parents, brothers, sisters, and grandparents) have a history.
“Specifically, tell your doctor about anyone who has passed away before they turned 60—particularly from heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Ilka Neumann, Director of Education and Training at BIOTRONIK. “It might pinpoint predispositions to cardiovascular disease depending on lifestyle factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, or a risk for sudden cardiac death, which could be inherited."
Dr. Neumann suggests writing this information down and talking to your doctor on your next visit. They can put together a risk profile and suggest prevention strategies.
1 Global, Regional, and National Age-Sex-Specific Mortality for 282 Causes of Death in 195 Countries and Territories, 1980-2017: A Systematic Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. The Lancet. 2018 Nov 10;392 (10159): 1736-1788.
2 The power of a plant-based diet for heart health. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/power-plant-based-diet-for-heart-health/art-20454743#:~:text=Eating%20more%20plant%2Dbased%20foods,Research%20says%20yes. Accessed 27 August, 2020.
3 High Blood Pressure. British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/high-blood-pressure. Accessed 16 June, 2020.
4 World Hypertension Day 2019. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/events/world-hypertension-day-2019. Accessed 16 June, 2020.
5 Blood Pressure Test. National Health Service. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/blood-pressure-test/. Accessed 16 June, 2020.
6 Get Your Blood Pressure Checked. United States Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/doctor-visits/screening-tests/get-your-blood-pressure-checked. Accessed 16 June, 2020.
7 Walking: Your steps to health. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/walking-your-steps-to-health. Accessed 16 June, 2020.
8 Daghlas I, Dashti HS, Lane J, et al. Sleep Duration and Myocardial Infarction. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2019;74:1304-1314.
9 Kuehn, Bridget M. Sleep Duration Linked to Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2019;139:2483-2484.
10 Bad tooth-brushing habits tied to higher heart risk. American Heart Association News. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/11/07/bad-tooth-brushing-habits-tied-to-higher-heart-risk. Accessed 16 June, 2020.