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Your Heart Health by the Numbers

These six things can make a big difference in lowering your risk of heart disease

By Bob Barnett and

(This article appeared previously on

It's a fact: Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death of men and women in the United States, killing 1 million people every year, according to the Heart Foundation. That means someone is dying from heart disease every 33 seconds.

To protect your heart, you've probably heard thousands of times that you should eat right, exercise and control risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol. But do these things actually work? To find out, we explored the research and talked to Dr. Tim Church, M.P.H., Ph.D., Director of Preventive Medicine Research at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.

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"The potential for prevention is huge for cardiovascular disease," says Church. "The first rule is, 'Don't smoke.' Smoking is a nuclear bomb."

Beyond that, let's look at the numbers and find out what really lowers your risk:

2,000 extra daily steps = 10 percent lower risk. In this global study, adults over 50 at high risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes who walked an additional 2,000 steps a day (about 20 minutes of brisk walking) reduced their risk of having a cardiovascular "event" such as a heart attack or stroke by 10 percent over the next six years.

"Other than not smoking, nothing comes close to physical activity for prevention," says Church. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of papers support it."

Achieving the goal of being physically active for 150 minutes a week, including strength training a couple of days a week, can reduce your cardiovascular risk by about 25 percent, he says.

(MORE: How Fit Are You, Really?)

"There's a dose response, which means the more you exercise, the more you benefit," says Church. "The biggest bang is just getting off the couch."

An 7 extra grams of fiber daily = 9 percent lower risk. In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, British researchers found that people who ate seven more grams of dietary fiber had a nine percent lower risk of heart disease. "Fiber has beneficial effects on blood glucose and cholesterol, and it may keep your gastrointestinal tract healthier, reducing inflammation," says Church. "Eating more fiber is also a marker of a healthier diet."

How much is seven grams or so? A medium apple has 5 grams of dietary fiber, as does a half cup of cooked broccoli. A half cup of cooked lentils: 8 grams.

Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains are all good sources of fiber.

A daily glass of wine = 25 percent lower risk. "It's pretty powerful," says Church. "Drinking in moderation cuts your risk of heart disease by about 25 percent." Moderate is defined as no more than one daily drink for a woman, two for a man. If you can drink moderately, research shows it's heart healthy.


"It relaxes your blood vessels, so you can't form a clot while alcohol's on board," says Church. "Any alcohol has benefits, but wine has a little more."

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Flu shot = 36 percent lower risk. This one has a catch — it's only for people who already have heart disease.

A recent analysis found that in people with heart disease, the flu shot reduces the risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack by 36 percent. "Getting the flu puts great stress on your body and increases the risk of having another heart attack," says Church.

A flu shot is a good idea for everyone, of course, and it's not too late to get one, since flu peaks near the beginning of March. Iif you're at high cardiovascular risk, or already have heart disease, that little jab could be a lifesaver.

Mediterranean Diet = 30 percent lower risk. A major Spanish study found that men and women aged 55 to 80 who ate a Mediterranean diet were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die from heart disease, over the next five years.

The most protective elements: olive oil as the primary fat; moderate alcohol (mostly from wine); lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and fish plus low consumption of meat. A recent study of firefighters from the Midwest who followed a Mediterranean-style diet found they had lower cardiovascular risk factors than those who didn't: less belly fat, lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and higher "good" HDL cholesterol.

The great thing about Mediterranean studies is that they capture not just one healthy element but a pattern — a lifestyle. "We should look at risk factor clusters and the Mediterranean lifestyle captures that," says Church. Add the physical activity that's part of a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, and it's really the big picture.

A healthy lifestyle = 25 percent less chance of dying from heart disease. Talk about big picture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that if everyone didn't smoke, ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, achieved a healthy weight and got regular checkups so they could control risk factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, then death from heart disease would fall by 25 percent. That's 200,000 lives saved — each year.

Bob Barnett Read More
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