How to Support Your Heart as You Age
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For many, the risk of heart disease increases as they get older. "As people age, they often become more sedentary, carve out less time for themselves, and are more stressed because they are busy working and balancing family responsibilities," explains Dr. Nieca Goldberg, the medical director of NYU Langone's Women's Heart Program. "They may not make regular medical visits and eat prepared meals. These influence risk by increasing risk factors for heart attack and stroke." But the good news? There are steps you can take to support your ticker as you age—and keep your heart healthy into your 50s, 60s, and beyond.
Correction is always more difficult than prevention. So, if you want to support your heart over time, it's important to start early. "Heart disease is not just something that happens when you're older," says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association. "This is something that happens throughout your life, so prevention is key." Adopt a healthier lifestyle in your 20s and 30s, and you'll lower your risk for heart disease later in life—it's that simple.
Understand Your Risk Factors
When you're armed with information about your health—and any potential factors that may predispose you for heart disease—you can better develop a plan to support your heart. Talk to your doctor about your lifestyle and family history, and have them take stock of your health status to evaluate your current risk. "It really just comes down to the basics, like blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight, and belly fat," says Dr. Steinbaum. "We often see belly fat in men as they age; it's very important to keep an eye on this because it can lead to atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease."
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
What you eat plays a huge role in this equation, which means incorporating heart-healthy foods into your diet is a must. "Diet is critical. The American Heart Association recommends an overall healthy dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils," says Dr. Steinbaum. "Good fats are very important for maintaining cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, and vegetables and leafy greens have B vitamins, which are so important as we age."
"Exercise is paramount to heart health," says Dr. Elizabeth Juneman, an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine—Tucson and member of the UA Sarver Heart Center. "Regular exercise burns calories, which can help maintain or reach a healthy weight, and also improves factors linked to cardiovascular health—resulting in lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels, and better blood sugar regulation."
Cardio is key, here, so make sure you're walking, jogging, or going for a swim regularly. "The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both—preferably spread throughout the week," says Dr. Steinbaum.
Too much stress can wreak havoc on your body, well-being, and overall health—and that includes your heart. "There is a correlation between stress and the development of cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Juneman, noting that those with depression, sleep disorders, and PTSD have worse cardiovascular outcomes—as do those with "self-described 'Type A' personalities." If you fall into any of these categories, stress reduction may improve your heart health, she adds.
If you struggle with feeling overwhelmed, it's important to find ways to relax, unwind, and better manage stress throughout the day. The way you deal with stress is up to you, but mindfulness practices or working up a healthy sweat can be extremely helpful in keeping anxiety at bay. "Breathing, meditation, and exercise are great ways to relieve stress," says Dr. Steinbaum.