You already know how important it is to take care of your heart, but sometimes it can be easy to put it in harm’s way without realizing it.
Here’s a sobering statistic: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an American has a heart attack every 40 seconds. That adds up to about 805,000 people in the U.S. who have a heart attack every year. Luckily, you have some degree of control over your risk—cutting out bad habits in favor of ones that promote a healthy lifestyle can work wonders when it comes to helping prevent a heart attack, the CDC says. So with that in mind, here are 20 ways you’re raising your risk of heart attack without even knowing it. And for more red flags regarding your health, check out 30 Warning Signs Your Heart Is Trying to Send You.
There are several ways to lower your risk of a heart attack, and one incredibly simple step is to simply get a flu shot. Your risk of a heart attack increases by six times in the first week after being diagnosed with the flu, per a 2018 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “We’re starting to understand how dangerous viruses are,” says Nicole Weinberg, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “People do have heart attacks when they’re inflicted with the flu, and it’s another reason we strongly encourage our patients to get the flu shot.”
And although the flu shot won’t protect you from COVID-19, it’s important to continue taking every precaution to protect yourself from coronavirus because it appears to indirectly bring on broken heart syndrome, which causes symptoms similar to a heart attack. And for more ways your doing damage to your health, check out The 20 Worst Habits That Are Destroying Your Heart.
Visiting the doctor’s office for an annual physical is an important way for your physician to pinpoint unexpected signs of heart disease that you may not notice yourself—and risk factors that increase your likelihood of a heart attack. “A lot of issues with cardiovascular disease can be preventable if you know what your risks are and treat them,” says Weinberg. “You may be able to circumvent ever having a heart attack by, say, treating your blood pressure or cholesterol accordingly.”
Not only do you sit around for hours when you binge watch a favorite show, but you might also consume any number of unhealthy drinks and snacks that are detrimental to your heart health. “Binge watching TV shows is certainly common and can be enjoyable during the pandemic,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. “However, a sedentary lifestyle and sitting for prolonged periods has been linked to cardiovascular disease.”
Binge watching for more than four hours per day was linked to a higher risk of heart disease and premature death compared to watching less than two hours of television daily, per a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. And to learn the ways you can tell if something is wrong with your health, check out 40 Subtle Signs Your Body Is Telling You Something’s Seriously Wrong.
To prevent cavities and gum disease, the American Dental Association recommends that you brush your teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and floss every day. “Gum and dental health is important for many reasons, your heart included,” says Haythe. “Studies have found that people with periodontal [gum] disease have two to three times the risk of heart attack, stroke or other serious cardiovascular events.”
Although more research is needed to determine the exact link between oral health and heart disease, periodontal disease raises inflammation in the body, which can be a key contributor to several health problems such as atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaque in blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack), says Harvard Medical School. And for oral hygiene habits you should cut out ASAP, check out 25 Things You’re Doing That Would Horrify Your Dentist.
Although it’s difficult not to feel stressed during the pandemic, managing those feelings can help protect your heart. “Stress is a definite trigger for acute heart attack and is a risk factor for development of cardiovascular disease over time,” says Haythe. “Stress causes your body to secrete adrenaline, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.”
Numerous studies have reported that meditation might have potential benefits on cardiovascular risk, per a September 2017 scientific statement published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. “Meditation instruction and practice is widely accessible and inexpensive and may thus be a potential attractive cost-effective adjunct to more traditional medical therapies,” note the authors. For more on finding your zen, The 50 Easiest Ways to Beat Stress in 2020.
If you’re battling depression, speak to your doctor about the best treatment options. Not only will it help you feel better overall, but there appears to be a connection between depression and poorer heart health. “It seems to be related to chemicals in the system that exacerbate the aggressiveness of plaque deposition or make the likelihood of plaque rupture a little more significant in these patients,” says Weinberg.
Patients were twice as likely to die if they developed depression after being diagnosed with heart disease, per a 2017 study published in the European Heart Journal. Meanwhile, early treatment for depression before the onset of symptomatic heart disease cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes almost in half among older patients in a 2014 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
You won’t just avoid a sour mood: By catching the right amount of z’s, you also actually help ward off heart issues. “Adults who sleep less than 7 hours a night have an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke,” says Haythe.
This can be due to a variety of factors—for instance, when you sleep, your blood pressure drops. By getting too little sleep, your blood pressure stays elevated for a longer amount of time, the CDC says. Getting enough sleep may also help with blood sugar control and weight management. And for more on some of the things that may be standing in your way of getting proper rest, check out The 7 Biggest Things Keeping You Awake at Night, Study Shows.
Experts are learning more about snoring and its connection to sleep apnea, which could have an affect on your heart attack risk. One in five adults has mild sleep apnea, a condition in which your breathing pauses during sleep, per the American Heart Association. “The more we learn about increased pressures in your chest while you’re sleeping, the more we learn about all the destruction that’s actually occurring to your vascular system,” says Weinberg.
A common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs when throat muscles relax. And according to the Mayo Clinic, it may increase your risk of recurrent heart attack, stroke, and atrial fibrillation.
Although meal plans that put fat in the spotlight like the ketogenic diet are trendy, if you eat too much of the wrong types of fat, it can affect your risk of heart disease. By replacing foods high in saturated fat (like fatty beef, pork, butter, and cheese) with healthier options (say, low-fat dairy products, fish, nuts, and vegetables), you can lower your blood’s cholesterol levels. You should get no more than 5 to 6 percent of your calories from saturated fat—about 120 calories or 13 grams of saturated fat if you consume 2,000 calories per day, according to the American Heart Association.
“It’s really important not to go to the extremes with diet, like consuming all fats or all carbs,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Women’s Heart Program and senior advisor for Women’s Health Strategy at NYU Langone Health in New York. “One of the problems with the ketogenic diet is that because it’s high in saturated fats, it can raise cholesterol in individuals who are at risk.”
It’s true that wine is often touted as a potential heart helper, but no research has officially proved a cause-and-effect link between alcohol and better heart health, says the American Heart Association. Plus, going overboard can put your ticker in a risky position.
“Up to one glass of wine per day for women or up to two in men may be beneficial, however, higher amounts can lead to heart muscle damage,” says Goldberg. “It can also increase the risk for heart arrhythmias, result in weight gain, and raise blood pressure.” And for more helpful information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
There’s a reason it’s often considered the most important meal of the day: “Eating breakfast is important for everyone,” says Haythe. “It provides our bodies with the calories you need to stay focused and energized throughout the day.” And although she notes there’s no definite link between heart attack and breakfast quite yet, some research has pointed toward its potential protective effects.
Those who skipped breakfast altogether had an 87 percent higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease that those who ate the meal, according to a 2019 study of 6,550 adults published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. This echoed previous research published in the journal Circulation that found men who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.
Achieving a healthy weight is incredibly important for your heart health—yet nearly 42 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC.
“If you’re overweight and you lose weight, your risk will be lower than it was before,” says Goldberg. “Obesity increases heart disease risk by raising levels of bad cholesterol, triglycerides, lowering HDL [good] cholesterol, increasing levels of sugar which can lead to diabetes, and also raising blood pressure.”
Processed foods can be high in added sugar, sodium, saturated fat and other unhealthy ingredients, which contributes to your risk of heart disease. “That’s why we often ask people to maintain a healthy diet with fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Weinberg.
Ultra-processed foods led to a higher risk of heart disease, according to the results of a 2019 study published in The BMJ. In fact, for every 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods, risk of serious cardiovascular events like a heart attack increased by 12 percent.
Eating two servings of red meat, processed meat or poultry (but not fish) weekly was found to increase your risk of heart disease by 3 to 7 percent, according to a 2020 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The same habit was also linked to a 3 percent higher risk of all types of death.
“Red meat and even some of the white meats have [high levels of] saturated fat, and the more saturated fat you eat, the greater the likelihood is that you’re going to raise your cholesterol,” says Goldberg.
It’s not just harmful for your lungs—smoking also hurts your heart. Tobacco smoke contains chemicals that harm your blood cells, the structure and function of your blood vessels, and the function of your heart. This increases the risk of plaque build-up in your arteries, which can lead to a heart attack, heart failure, chest pain, and even death, per the National Institutes of Health.
“If you smoke, it is time to stop, and the sooner the better,” says Haythe. “Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease compared with non-smokers.” For more on ditching nicotine, here are The 10 Best Ways to Stop Smoking You’ve Never Tried.
Even if you don’t smoke yourself, being exposed to secondhand smoke can still harm your heart. Secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 premature deaths among nonsmokers from heart disease every year in the United States, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Brief exposure can damage the lining of blood vessels and make blood platelets stickier, which can cause deadly heart attack.
If you’re experiencing hot flashes, it could be a sign of impending heart trouble. Women who have vasomotor symptoms (like hot flashes and night sweats) are 70 percent more likely to experience cardiovascular events like heart attacks, per a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.
“A lot of women have a ‘protective’ effect when they have more estrogen in their system,” says Weinberg. “But as their hormones start to change, they may begin to develop high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Statistics show that many women end up having their first heart attack in their ten years after menopause.”
It may be important to speak to your doctor about your heart disease risk and precautions you can take if you experience early menopause—one more reason getting regular physicals is so important. A woman’s risk of cardiovascular disease increases immensely after menopause. “Early menopause leads to earlier loss of estrogen, as well as concomitant rises in blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing a woman’s risk of heart disease,” says Haythe.
Sure, fiber helps to keep your digestive system humming, but it also plays a role in your heart health. Soluble fiber found in foods like beans, oats, and flaxseed may help lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol, per the Mayo Clinic. “Low-fiber intake is not one of the major risk factors for having a heart attack, but high-fiber diets do help to lower cholesterol,” says Goldberg. “Generally, we have people do a combination of diet and exercise to lower cholesterol.”
Each additional 10 grams of fiber consumed per day was linked to a 15 percent lower risk of death from coronary heart disease in a 2012 study of more than 300,000 participants published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Eating too much added sugar, which is added to foods during preparation or processing, can contribute to elevated blood pressure, inflammation, diabetes, weight gain, and fatty liver disease, all of which are linked to a higher risk of heart attack, per Harvard Medical School. “People with lower sugar intake are better off from a vascular standpoint,” says Weinberg.
In fact, over the course of 15 years, people who got 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar had a 38 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who only got 8 percent of their calories from added sugar in a 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine study.