February is heart month, and we don't just mean the kind filled with tasty chocolate treats. To mark the annual celebration of heart health, here are prevention tips. Many are familiar; some perhaps less so. But all promise strategies to keep or get you on the road to better heart health.
If you smoke, quit. Tobacco contains chemicals that damage the heart and lead to narrowing of the arteries — and that can lead to a heart attack. Smokeless tobacco is just as bad as smoking cigarettes. But kick the habit and your risk of heart disease drops dramatically.
Exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week to reduce your risk of fatal heart disease. Not only does exercise help you maintain a healthy weight, it also reduces stress and your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Eat a heart-healthy diet: The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan limits fats and sodium, while piling on fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Beans, other low-fat sources of protein and certain types of fish also can reduce your risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids — found in fish like salmon and mackerel — may decrease your risk of heart attack and lower blood pressure.
Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women. At that level, alcohol can have a protective effect on your heart. More than that becomes a health hazard — among other things, it can raise blood pressure.
Maintain a healthy weight to limit your chances of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes — a major threat to your heart. Aim for a BMI of 25 or lower. Or watch your waist: Men's should be less than 40 inches; women should be less than 35 inches
Lose a little: Don't be discouraged if you have a ways to go. Reducing your weight by just 10 percent can decrease your blood pressure, lower your blood cholesterol level and reduce your risk of diabetes.
More numbers to watch: High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels without your ever realizing it. So get tested regularly. Healthy adults need a blood pressure check at least every two years; more if you have hypertension or other risk factors. Aim for less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury.
Cholesterol should be checked at least once every five years starting at age 20; more often if you're at risk.
Depending on risk factors, your doctor may recommend first testing you for diabetes sometime between ages 30 and 45, and then retesting every three to five years.
Floss your teeth! A study in the Journal of Periodontology shows that the inflammation of gum disease also leads to arterial inflammation. "The bacteria that cause gum disease, we think, set up an immune reaction that attacks your arteries," Dr. Michael Roizen says. Floss daily, and get regular professional cleanings to remove plaque.
Get to know CRP: C-reactive protein helps measure chronic inflammation and the overall health of arteries. The higher your CRP level, the more at risk you may be for heart disease—even if your other indicators look normal. The American Heart Association says testing may be useful for those at moderate risk for heart disease, though it's not recommended as routine screening unless you're at high risk.
Sleep tight, sleep right: A 10-year Harvard study found that women who slept less than five hours per night were nearly 40 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease than women who slept an average of eight hours. And the sleepyheads — more than nine hours per night — were 37 percent more likely to have heart trouble. Other studies have found similar results in men.
Chronic tension may be as bad for your heart as smoking two packs a week, according to a new review of six heart-stress studies involving nearly 120,000 women and men. Stress stimulates the release of adrenal hormones that cause high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar. That encourages overeating, deposits of risky belly fat and plaque deposits clogging your arteries
More reasons to chill: A Canadian study says people who had heart attacks and returned to a stressful career were twice as likely to have a second attack as those who held down reasonably stress-free jobs. Stressful intimate relationships are just about as bad for you, another study finds.
Take your medicine: If you're taking medication to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Don't stop medication just because you think you feel okay; only go off meds with your doctor's supervision.