What could be worse than a broken heart? The fact that you may be doing the breaking. According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one killer of Americans every year—accounting for one in every four deaths—many of them preventable.
You can make easy changes to your lifestyle to reduce your risk. Here are 40 things you’ve probably been doing that hurt your heart—and what you can do to make it better. And to ensure you and your entire family remains in good health, don’t miss our essential list of 100 Ways Your Home Could be Making You Sick.
Most of us think stabbing chest pain is the telltale sign of a heart attack. In the movies, there’s the classic scene where the man gasps, clutches his heart, and collapses. But heart attacks don’t only strike men—heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. And in women, the symptoms can be much less dramatic. According to experts at the National Heart Association, women having a heart attack may feel:
- Uncomfortable pressure or a feeling of fullness in the chest that lasts for a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
- Pain that radiates into the shoulders, neck, jaw, back, or either arm
- Shortness of breath with or without chest pain
- Breaking out in a cold sweat, vomiting and nausea, extreme fatigue, or feeling lightheaded
Recommendation: These heart attack signs may be subtle, but they’re no less deadly. Man or woman, if you have any of these signs, call 911 and get to a hospital.
You’re out shopping with a friend when your arm gets tingly and your words start slurring. This couldn’t be a stroke—you’re too young for that, right? Nope. Compared to 20 years ago, strokes are on the rise in people under the age of 45. A study in JAMA Neurology found that acute ischemic stroke hospitalization rates in women aged 18 to 34 rose nearly 32 percent. Researchers think this is linked to an increase in high cholesterol, tobacco use, high blood pressure and obesity.
Recommendation: Know the signs of a stroke. This acronym is easy to remember: FAST, which stands for facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulties, and time to call 911.
If you notice a white or gray ring around your iris, and you aren’t a zombie, it might mean you have arcus senilis—a potential sign of high cholesterol. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s not unusual if you’re over 30 years of age. If you’re younger than that, it could be cause for concern. Whitening in the cornea in younger people is a potential sign of familial hyperlipidemia, a common genetic disorder that increases blood fats and increases your risk of a heart attack.
Recommendation: Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice these white rings around your cornea to check your cholesterol levels.
Taking care of your teeth isn’t just about having a bright white smile. The American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension says there is a link between gum disease and heart disease. Poor dental health increases the risk of a bacterial infection in your bloodstream (because it could get in through your bleeding gums). And, there is a connection between tooth loss and coronary artery disease.
Recommendation: We know it’s a pain but floss every night, brush your teeth at least twice daily, and go to your dentist for a cleaning.
Do you see red when a driver cuts you off in traffic, or your favorite football team fumbles the ball? Uncontrolled anger can lead to an increase in heart trouble, according to the Journal of American Medicine. When you get angry, stress hormones flood your body, which causes your face to flush, your heart to race and your blood pressure to rise. Chronically angry people have a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease. And if you’re a man, you’re more likely to experience this rage: males reported “higher rates of anger attacks/aggression, substance abuse, and risk-taking compared with women.”
Recommendation: Anger is natural—we all get ticked off sometimes. But unsuppressed anger is bad for you, and it takes a toll. You might seek anger management therapy to find ways to manage your emotions. There’s no proof it will prevent a heart attack, but it can help your peace of mind.
There really is such a thing as dying of a broken heart—it’s not just something made up for romance novels. Broken Heart Syndrome is triggered by major stress, like the death of someone you love or an ugly breakup. It’s a temporary heart condition sometimes called takotsubo cardiomyopathy that disrupts your heart’s ability to pump normally. The good news is, broken heart syndrome is treatable and usually clears up within a few weeks.
Recommendation: Don’t try to deal with the stress of losing a loved one alone. Reach out for help—whether to a trusted doctor, a therapist, or family and friends. No one has to go through that pain alone.
Want to get heart healthy? The American Heart Association says that owning a dog is associated with lower risk of heart disease. Not only are dogs great companions, they get more than wagging their own tails—they get your tail moving. That’s because dogs need to be walked every day, and dog owners are 54 percent more likely to get at least the recommended level of exercise.
Recommendation: Consider adopting a pet from the Humane Society.
If you choose to raise a glass, make it red. Antioxidants in red wine called “polyphenols” are thought to protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. While the links between antioxidants in red wine and lower risk of heart attack isn’t fully understood, the Mayo Clinic says the benefit may come from an increase in “good cholesterol” (HDL).
Recommendation: If you’re already drinking red wine, keep it to one glass per day. Too much alcohol consumption isn’t good for you.
Heavy metal music gets your blood pumping, but it doesn’t do much for your heart health. A study by the University of Florence found that patients who listened to classical, Celtic, or Indian music and practiced slow breathing for a half hour each day had significant improvements in blood pressure.
Recommendation: Don’t throw out your favorite AC/DC t-shirt. But be aware of the calming effects of classical, and add some Mozart to your musical mix.
Sleep is essential for your health. When people suffer from insomnia, they’re not just exhausted—they’re at greater risk for all kinds of health problems. Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep. Chronic insomnia is a sleep disturbance that happens at least three times per week and lasts for at least three months. This kind of insomnia is what puts you at greater risk. According to a report published in Hypertension, chronic insomnia is associated with a significant increase in hypertension.
Recommendation: You don’t have to live with insomnia—it is treatable. The National Sleep Foundation recommends talking with your doctor for treatment options.
There really can be too much of a good thing when it comes to sleep. According to a study conducted in the United Kingdom, sleeping more than 9 hours per night is linked to a 30% greater risk of early death. And napping during the day can be just as dangerous. The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that women who take naps every day are 58% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: Get a good night’s sleep – between 7 and 9 hours.
If you wake up feeling exhausted every morning, and your partner complains that you snore a lot, you may have a condition called sleep apnea. It’s more than just annoying—it’s dangerous. Symptoms include high blood pressure, waking up gasping for air, and the inability to concentrate. With this disorder, the muscles in the back of your throat fail to keep the airway open. Not only does this give you a terrible night’s sleep and low blood oxygen levels, the National Sleep Association says it can lead to congestive heart failure, heart attack, and cardiac arrhythmia (a disturbance of your heart’s rhythm).
Recommendation: Snoring can be a major health problem, so ask to see a sleep specialist if you think you might have sleep apnea. They can give you a diagnosis and treatment to help you get some quality sleep.
For decades, we’ve been told to worry about our body mass index (BMI) when it comes to weight. But a study by the North American Menopause Society showed that it’s not how much fat, but where it is on your body that matters most to your heart. Belly fat, also called visceral fat, is the most dangerous kind because it surrounds your vital organs deep inside your body. Women who carried fat mostly in their torso were three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than women who have more fat in their legs.
Recommendation: If you’re having trouble keeping the weight off, talk to your doctor for advice on how to manage your risk.
Do you only go to the doctor when you want a prescription, or think you have the flu? If so, you’re not alone—26 percent of people in one recent survey said they had trouble paying for healthcare services, and 20% had canceled a visit because they couldn’t afford it. (Even if you can afford it, you might be too busy to go.) If you’re skipping out on your annual checkup, you could be putting your health at risk. The cuff that squeezes your arm is an important part of your screening according to the National Heart Association, because high blood pressure usually has no symptoms—so you won’t know if it’s out of control without going to the doctor’s office. You may also have your cholesterol levels checked to see if you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke.
Recommendation: We know it can be expensive and inconvenient, but see your doctor for preventative check-ups if at all possible.
Working at a desk, driving to work, binge-watching Netflix—all of that downtime has a high price. Australian researchers found that every hour spent watching TV is linked to an 18% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease, the same as smoking two cigarettes.
Recommendation: You don’t have to give up watching Westworld. But take breaks every now and then to get up, stretch your muscles, or jog in place to keep your blood flowing.
Being lonely really can hurt your heart—in a literal way. According to research published in the journal Heart, people who reported not having close friendships or feelings of loneliness had a 32% higher risk of stroke, and a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease. People who have a good circle of friends have a better chance of a longer life—social connections can help us feel more positive, recover from illness faster, and increase immune function.
Recommendation: Pick up the phone and make plans to see your friends. Like, in person (not just on Skype). If you’re feeling depressed, talk to a doctor or a therapist to get help.
Does the weight of the world hang on your shoulders? You might benefit from a good laugh. Research has shown that laughter is linked to chemical changes in the body that reduce stress and increase pain tolerance. According to a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, adults over the age of 60 who participated in weekly “group laughter sessions” had an increase in mineral bone density. Findings also show that people with a sense of humor are linked to a 73% lower risk of death from heart disease.
Recommendation: The next time it’s your pick on movie night, choose a comedy instead of a dark documentary.
By now you’ve probably heard that taking too many antibiotics isn’t a good idea—because bacteria become resistant to them and morph into “superbugs.” But antibiotics can also be bad for your heart. According to European Heart Journal, long-time antibiotic use changes the microbiome in your gut and associated with significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: We’re not saying to stop taking your antibiotics—that can lead to other health problems. But just be aware that long-term use of any medication carries risk, and talk to your doctor about it.
Hospitals are where you go to get well—but laying in your hospital bed for too long without moving can put you at risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT). That’s when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in your leg. When that clot breaks off and travels up to your lungs, it’s a life-threatening condition called a pulmonary embolism. Warning signs of DVT include leg pain or tenderness, leg swelling, skin that feels warm to the touch, and red streaks on the skin.
Recommendation: The American Heart Association recommends wearing compression stockings or getting out of your hospital bed quickly after surgery if possible. Talk to your doctor about how to manage your risk of deep vein thrombosis.
Oral contraceptive pills are a highly effective birth control—but they increase risk of high blood pressure in some women. According to the American Heart Association, this is most likely in women who smoke, are overweight, have had high blood pressure during pregnancy, or have a family history of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a silent killer – many adults don’t even know they have it because there are often no obvious symptoms.
Recommendation: Don’t quit taking your medication without talking to your doctor first.
Think taking a puff on an electronic cigarette is safer? Think again. Vaping has been billed as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes because it’s smokeless—e-cigarettes heat nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals into a water vapor that is inhaled. But a study published in Radiology showed that vaping just once can damage your blood vessels, even if it doesn’t have any nicotine. And after vaping, scans showed reduced blood flow and oxygen to the subjects’ legs for at least an hour. This kind of damage can build over time, and that’s what leads to risk of heart problems.
Recommendation: Just don’t vape. Talk to your doctor about alternative ways to kick your nicotine habit.
The science is clear: smoking is bad for your heart. According to the CDC, smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease—and not just in the ways you might think. Lighting up can raise triglycerides (a fat in your blood), lower your “good” HDL cholesterol, make your blood stickier and more prone to clotting, cause thickening and narrowing of your blood vessels, and a whole host of other nasty side effects. The effects are significant for nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke at home or work, too—a 25% increased risk of heart disease and 20% greater risk of stroke.
Recommendation: Quit the sticks. If you’re having trouble kicking your smoking habit, talk with your doctor. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss this essential list of the 50 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.
The mind-body connection is well known in the medical community. So, it comes as no surprise that mental pain can cause physical pain. Research shows that people with cardiovascular disease are more likely to have depression, and people with depression are more likely to have cardiovascular disease—the two are linked. But they link is also proportional, which means the more severe your depression, the more likely you are to develop heart disease and die from it.
Recommendation: Don’t suffer from depression in silence. Seek help from a therapist—there’s zero shame in taking care of your mental health.
There is debate about whether keto diets are good for your health, but the science is clear on one thing: too much LDL cholesterol is linked to heart disease. LDL causes fatty deposits to build up in your arteries, which reduces the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart. The American Heart Association says it’s vital for men and women to keep a close eye on their cholesterol.
Recommendation: Start eating a heart-healthy diet and limit your red meat, saturated fats like coconut oil, and full-fat dairy. You can also increase your intake of “good” HDL cholesterol
Your mom was right—you have to eat your vegetables if you want to be healthy. The CDC recommends 2 cups of fruit per day and 3 cups of vegetables for adults for a healthy diet because they are rich in nutrition and low in calories. And, according to an English study of 65,000 adults over more than 7 years, those who ate the most produce every day lowered their risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 31%.
Recommendation: Any amount of green is good for you, so don’t be scared off by a high target.
Sorry donut lovers: even if you’re at a healthy weight, a diet high in sugar may increase your risk of heart disease. According to a study published in the Journal of American Medicine, people who ate more than 25% of their calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets had less than 10% sugar. Now, not all sugars are “bad”—naturally occurring sugars like lactose (milk) and fructose (fruit) aren’t the same as added sugars, like the ones in your large vanilla latte.
Recommendation: The American Heart Association advises women to limit added sugar—less than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons. For men it’s about 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons.
Breast cancer is one of the scariest things a woman can go through. If you’re over the age of 45 and have completed your cancer treatment, you have a greater risk of heart disease. According to a Brazilian study published in Menopause, when compared with women over 45 who had not experienced breast cancer, those who underwent treatment have a much higher likelihood of cardiovascular problems.
Recommendation: You can manage your risk by making heart-healthy lifestyle changes, like eating less saturated fat and exercising more.
Diabetes is a common condition in the United States—affecting about 1 in every 11 people. It’s what happens when your body can’t make enough insulin, and sugar builds up in the bloodstream. According to the CDC, women with diabetes have a 40% greater risk of developing heart disease and a 25% greater risk of stroke than men do.
Recommendation: If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor about how to lower your risk of heart disease.
Some people think they can avoid the nasty side effects of cigarettes by chewing tobacco instead—but it’s not a safer option. Chewing tobacco is a smokeless tobacco that’s placed in the cheek and sucked, and doing so raises your heart rate and blood pressure. According to the CDC, smokeless tobacco is linked to cancer, addiction to nicotine, and increased risk of death from stroke or heart disease.
Recommendation: Just don’t do it. If you’re already chewing tobacco, see your doctor to get help quitting.
When you have trouble at work or an unexpected bill, can you handle it? Everyone feels and experiences stress differently. But when your stress gets out of control, you can feel it in your body – because stress makes your body release adrenaline. That hormone makes your breathing and heart rate speed up temporarily as you prepare for “fight or flight.” According to one study, “prolonged inflammatory response may inflict serious damage upon its host.”
Recommendation: If you are feeling super stressed, try doing some yoga or going for a walk—or for a quick fix, watch some cat videos. Laughter really can be the best medicine.
If you feel exhausted all the time, it might be because you have anemia. This condition develops when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells (or hemoglobin). These cells carry oxygen. So, when you don’t have enough red blood cells, your body doesn’t get enough oxygen and your organs don’t function properly. This can lead to an irregular heartbeat, because your heart has to pump more to make up for the lack of oxygen in the blood – which can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure. According to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, anemia is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Recommendation: Eat more leafy greens (like spinach) with high levels of iron—or take an iron supplement—to help combat anemia.
The next time you think about skipping the gym to sleep in, think twice. As many as 250,000 deaths per year in the United States are linked to a lack of exercise. In fact, being a couch potato is one of the top five risk factors for heart disease, along with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity.
Recommendation: The American Heart Association advises adults to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. You don’t have to compete in the Ironman—ballroom dancing, a round of tennis, or a brisk walk will do the trick.
Love hitting the gym for hours at a time? You could be putting your heart at risk. A study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that adults who did more than three times the recommendations—150 minutes of moderate exercise per week—could be doing cardiovascular damage. Another study from Denmark found that people who jogged a lot, and at higher intensity, were more likely to die during the course of the study than those who exercised less often. In fact, it was almost the same risk as those who did not exercise at all.
Recommendation: Don’t overdo it—20 minutes of moderate exercise every day is the sweet spot for heart health.
Here’s a scary thought: almost half of all adults in the United States have high blood pressure, and most of us don’t even know it. According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure is called a silent killer because it often doesn’t show any obvious symptoms. Hypertension is what happens when the force of blood is consistently too high. A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80. When left unchecked, high blood pressure can lead to damage to your circulatory system, stroke, heart attack and other health problems.
Recommendation: See your doctor regularly to have your blood pressure checked. Limit salt and alcohol, and try to exercise regularly.
You might think of aspirin as a harmless over-the-counter drug, and since it’s been pushed as heart-healthy, why not pop one? It might surprise you to learn that aspirin can actually cause deadly complications in some people. The FDA warns that while aspirin can help prevent a heart attack by “thinning” the blood, that could cause the unwanted side effect of bleeding in the heart or brain.
Recommendation: Talk to your doctor before you start taking aspirin for your heart so you can weigh the benefits and risks.
Sorry, carnivores—that juicy steak is bad for your heart. A recent study published in the European Heart Journal found that people who eat red meat—but not vegetarians or those who eat only white meat like pork—have increased levels of the chemical trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). This compound is made by gut bacteria to digest food, and has been found to raise the risk of heart disease and early death. Not only that, but a diet heavy in red meat can actually change kidney function. Some people in the study had a ten-fold increase in TMAO levels after only a month of eating red meat, which didn’t happen in people who ate poultry, fish, or other non-meat sources of saturated fat.
Recommendation: Watch your intake of red meats. The American Heart Association advises baked fish, skinless poultry, and trimmed lean meats—but no more than 5.5 cooked ounces daily.
By now, you’ve probably seen bottles of probiotics on the pharmacy shelf. Many people reach for them to stay “regular,” or help reset the system after taking antibiotics. Probiotics are “good bacteria” found in foods prepared by fermentation like kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. So, when you pick up a container of yogurt and read “active live cultures Lactobacillus”—that’s your probiotic. Some scientists think probiotics may help lower risk of heart disease. The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that certain yogurts decreased total cholesterol by 4% within one to two months.
Recommendation: Studies on probiotics are ongoing, so more therapeutic uses are likely to come. It never hurts to eat a little yogurt (as long as it’s not loaded with too much sugar).
Do you get dizzy or feel like you might pass out for no reason? You might have a low heart rate. This is sometimes a sign of a strong heart—but if it’s too slow, it can be cause for concern. A normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute – that means your heart isn’t working too hard to pump blood. Elite athletes in top cardiovascular condition often have heart rates under 60 BPM. But if you’re not training for a triathlon, it could be a sign of bradycardia, where your heart isn’t pumping often enough. Left untreated long-term, this can lead to heart failure, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, and chest pain.
Recommendation: A low heart rate doesn’t always require treatment. If you’re noticing dizzy spells or other troublesome symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Soaking in a hot tub is one of the best ways to relax and unwind—but for some, it can be dangerous. When you spend too long immersed in hot water, you could experience blood pressure that’s too low. That’s because heat can make your vessels dilate, which lowers your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder, which is taxing on an unhealthy heart.
Recommendation: The Mayo Clinic says it’s probably ok for people with stable heart disease to use hot tubs, as long as they limit the time to 15 minutes or less.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is a natural remedy that seems to be everywhere right now. It’s created by extracting only CBD from the cannabis plant. That way, you get the health-related benefits of cannabis without the “high”—because CBD is not psychoactive. While the overall health benefits are still uncertain, recent research has shown a link to heart health, stating “a single dose of CBD reduces resting blood pressure and the blood pressure response to stress.”
Recommendation: The effects of CBD oil are still being studied, so it’s uncertain exactly what the risks and benefits are. If you’re taking other medications, be sure to speak with your doctor or pharmacist before giving this remedy a try. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 40 Things Cardiologists Do to Protect Their Hearts—not to treat heart problems, but to prevent getting it in the first place.