St. Lawrence Health

Tips for Preventing Heart Disease

Eighty percent of cardiac and stroke events can be prevented. Our experts share some of the ways you can take charge of your health.

Feb. 12, 2022 6   min read

1 in 4 deaths in America are due to heart disease.

Let’s start with the scary part. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and here in St. Lawrence County.

The good news is that you can do something about it.

Eighty percent of cardiac and stroke events can be prevented. You may not be able to change risk factors like age and a family history of heart disease, but you can take control of your health, learn about prevention, and incorporate heart-healthy practices into your life. So ask yourself: what if you made better choices along the way? 

What if you knew your risk?

Understanding your risk is key to heart disease prevention. Age, gender, diet, tobacco and alcohol use, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes all determine whether a person is at risk of developing heart disease. If you know which risks factors affect you the most, you can determine where to start making healthy changes.

Steps to help you prevent heart disease

Step 1: Eat Well

We know that burger—or that donut, or soda, or piece of cake—looks and tastes amazing right now. But your body won’t thank you later. Eating heart-healthy foods will help you control your weight and cholesterol. And we promise it doesn’t have to taste like cardboard: there are many delicious, heart-healthy foods that are simple to incorporate into your diet. Here’s how to get started: 

  • Rediscover your kitchen. Cooking can be fun, and home-cooked meals are often far more nutritious than restaurant foods. You can find heart healthy recipes from the Mayo ClinicFood NetworkRachel RayMartha Stewart and numerous others.
  • Plan your meals in advance. Nourish your body with a balanced diet of seasonal veggies, nuts and legumes, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meats. Check local farmers’ markets for seasonal fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid sugary drinks, processed foods, and any foods with added salt or sugar. Be mindful of your sodium intake—decreasing the amount of salt you eat by just half a teaspoon per day lowers your risk of heart disease.
  • Keep your caffeine consumption under control. Studies about a link between caffeine intake and heart disease show mixed results. Drinking 1-2 cups of coffee per day doesn’t seem to be a problem. Energy drinks, sodas, coffee drinks, and many other caffeine beverages contain added sugar, which is best avoided. 
  • Worried that your food bill will skyrocket? Check out these tips on eating healthy on a budget and incorporating healthy foods under $1 per serving into your diet from the American Heart Association.

Step 2: Exercise

Not-so-surprising newsflash: exercise is good for you. Moving your body and breaking a sweat helps you strengthen your heart, prevent buildup in the arteries, lower cholesterol, and lose weight. But sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

We suggest picking an exercise program you can stick with—maybe it’s walking or riding your bike; maybe it’s swimming or a dance class. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

But if that sounds daunting, don’t be afraid to start small: walk for just 10 minutes a day, and then slowly increase the amount you exercise. If you work at an office and find yourself spending a lot of time sitting at your desk, try these stretches to get you moving throughout the day.

Step 3: Stop Smoking

Sorry smokers, we hate to nag, but there’s no getting around the facts: smoking is the United States’ leading cause of premature death. Smoking damages the blood vessels and can cause atherosclerosis—the build-up of fat and plaque in the arteries. As a result, smokers are at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Eliminating tobacco lowers your risk of heart disease over time. We know quitting can be hard. If you need help, check out these tips on how to stop smoking and ask for advice from your doctor. Smokers and non-smokers alike should take care to avoid secondhand smoke. Need extra incentive? Just think of all the money you’ll save when you stop spending on tobacco products! Learn more about better breathing.

Step 4: Stress Less

Your heart’s racing. Your palms are sweaty. You can’t sleep—and when you do sleep, you grind your teeth. Those are all signs of stress, which can adversely affect your heart overtime. How? When you’re under stress, your body releases adrenaline, which raises your blood pressure and makes your heart beat faster. A lot of people try to quell stress through unhealthy behaviors like drinking, smoking, and overeating, which all increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Instead, try reducing stress through healthy practices like yoga, meditation, spending time with friends and family, and getting outside. Walking your dog and enjoying a good laugh have physical and emotional benefits, and studies show that they may correlate to reduced heart disease risk. 

Step 5: Get Regular Check-Ups

Preventative care goes a long way towards a healthy heart. Monitor your health with regular visits to your primary care provider, who can help you proactively manage your blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. If you are diabetic, or if you’re a smoker, have a family history of heart disease, or have heart pain, you might want to visit a cardiologist. 

Many people believe there’s a correlation between gum disease and poor heart health. Scientists say there’s no direct link between the two conditions. But heart and gum diseases often occur in conjunction, especially if patients have diabetes, which can cause dry mouth and unhealthy gums, or if they smoke, which erodes oral health. The moral of the story? Brush your teeth, floss, and visit the dentist regularly—it’s good for your overall health. 

Step 6: Slow Down Your Drinking. Up Your Sleep.

You might’ve heard the popular science maxim: one glass of red wine is good for your heart. It’s sort of true. Red wine contains an antioxidant called resveratrol, which some studies show might contribute to lower inflammation and blood clotting (other studies don’t show that resveratrol prevents heart disease). But drinking too much red wine – or any other alcoholic beverage – can put you at greater risk of heart disease. So don’t write off that bottle of red as a heart disease prevention measure. And drink in careful moderation, or not at all.

If you need more of anything, it’s probably sleep. Research shows an association between ongoing sleep disturbance and heart disease. So if you’re plagued by chronic insomnia, work to establish a regular bed-time, avoid naps, and reduce screen time – relax and unwind instead! – before you hit the sack.

Gender and your heart

Heart attack symptoms can differ between men and women.

Both men and women can experience classic heart attack symptoms like shortness of breath and pain and pressure in the upper chest, left shoulder, and one or both in arms. But women can also experience heart attacks without chest pressure, and sometimes exhibit subtler symptoms like nausea, cold sweats, lightheadedness, and extreme fatigue that can be mistaken as indigestion or the flu. If you have any of these symptoms, don’t wait—go to the emergency room immediately.

What if you could save a life?

  • Call 911.Paramedics can provide treatment as they transport the heart attack victim to a hospital, and the dispatcher can walk you through what to do until help arrives. 
  • If the person is conscious, help them chew and swallow an Aspirin.An adult dose of the painkiller can help dissipate blood clots and minimize muscle damage. Chewing the aspirin allows it to work faster. Make sure the person isn’t allergic to Aspirin. 
  • If the person is unconscious, begin CPR.If you aren’t formally trained in CPR, doctors suggest performing rapid chest compressions – 100 per minute – and skipping mouth-to-mouth. 
  • Find an automated defibrillator.Have someone set up the device as you perform CPR. Attach the device and follow the instructions. The device will calculate the person’s heart rhythm and will determine whether defibrillation is needed. 

We are here to help

Heart health is about incorporating healthy practices into your everyday life for the long haul.

Making time for the things you love and committing to a healthy lifestyle goes a long way towards heart health. Eighty percent of cardiac and stroke events are preventable. So be good to yourself—your heart will thank you. For more information on heart health, or to make an appointment with a cardiologist, visit St. Lawrence Health System’s cardiology department.