You already know that a healthy diet and not smoking are important for a healthy heart. In fact, traditional risk factors like a family history of heart disease and controlling high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, are all central to preventing heart disease. But there are some surprising ways you can up your odds of warding off a heart attack:
1. Seek Treatment for Depression
Depression and stress often go hand in hand with heart disease.
Research shows that 50 percent of people with heart disease will have a depressive episode in their lifetime — compared to about 20 percent of the overall population, according to the American Psychological Association.
Since depression starts in the brain, it’s a dysfunction in the unconscious nervous system, which regulates blood pressure and heart rate. This kicks up adrenaline and puts stress on the circulatory system, explains Dr. Lee Marcus, a cardiologist at Preventive Cardiology of New York in New York City.
“Besides which, depression often leads to adverse behaviors like smoking, sedentary lifestyle, eating poorly and high cholesterol levels,” he says. That’s why people who are depressed have a higher incidence of heart disease and have worse outcomes after having a heart attack than those who do not have depression.
2. Find a Hobby
Hobbies aren’t just time sucks. Hobbies take your mind off depressive thoughts because you’re focusing on something positive and getting projects done, says Marcus. Plus, they tend to make people less sedentary.
“We’ve known for years that sitting on the couch being sedentary is just as dangerous as smoking. It causes the platelets in the blood to be stickier, which causes blood clots and a progression of heart disease that doesn’t occur if you’re active,” he said.
Depression often leads to adverse behaviors like smoking, sedentary lifestyle, eating poorly and high cholesterol levels.
— Lee Marcus, M.D.
People with hobbies are up and about; gardening, woodworking and even a ceramics class helps you have interactions with others while pursuing a pastime. Taking up a hobby with a buddy is even better since you’ll socialize and work in tandem.
The bottom line: Leisure activities increase our happiness, soothe stress and lower blood pressure and heart rate.
3. Get Out of the House
Social isolation is bad for your heart. Joining a book club, going to your house of worship and having a good social network — actual friends, not just social media, for support — helps.
“People who tend to be isolated also tend to withdraw and not take steps to improve their health, like exercising or quitting smoking,” says Dr. Necia Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center.
So host a neighborhood block party, sign up for a computer coding class or just call a friend and go see a movie. You’ll be doing yourself and your heart a favor.
4. Hit the Sleep Sweet Spot
Based on studies, the ideal nightly sleep time is seven to eight hours. People who sleep more than eight hours have a higher incidence of high blood pressure, which may be due to issues such as drinking too much, working too hard or depression.
Likewise, middle-aged adults who sleep less than seven hours per night also have a higher incidence of heart disease and high blood pressure. They may have a sleep disorder or a highly driven, Type A personality. They may feel they have too much to do to sleep.
Regardless, when you don’t get an optimum level of sleep, your nightly blood pressure never dips (lowering offers protection against heart events). Instead, blood pressure remains higher, leading to a thickening of the heart muscle and damage to vessels. Yes, sleep is that important.
Experts advise people to get to bed earlier, turn off electronics an hour before bed, skip caffeine after noon and avoid excessive alcohol consumption, which tends to wake you too early.
5. Get a Flu Vaccine
If you’re one of the 60 percent of Americans who often skip the flu shot, rethink that. When you have the flu, your body is awash in inflammation. We know chronic inflammation is bad for you, and the flu puts a tremendous strain on your body, damaging blood vessel walls. A recent study found that those who got the flu vaccine had a 36 percent lower risk of having a major cardiac event the next year.
“Flu doesn’t cause coronary artery disease; the coronary artery disease is already there, but the flu exacerbates it, just like anger or stress does when someone has a temper tantrum that leads to a heart attack,” says Marcus.
6. Embrace Your Spirituality
Being part of an organized religion help you feel less isolated and lonely. But even if you don’t go to a place of worship, being a spiritual person and believing in a higher entity is good for your heart, Marcus says.
Spiritual people tend not to overreact, handle situations more calmly and understand there is a higher purpose to life, Marcus says. The mechanisms aren’t clearly understood why people who are spiritual have less heart disease risk, but it may have to do with a more peaceful attitude and less stress and frustration with life’s ups and downs.