When it comes to the heart’s health, there are some things you can’t control -- like getting older, or having a parent with heart disease. But there are many more things you can do to lower the chances of sabotaging your ticker.
“An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure in this instance,” says Gregg Fonarow, MD, an American Heart Association spokesman and associate chief of UCLA's division of cardiology.
To help your heart keep on keeping on, here are 10 things not to do.
1. Keep smoking.
A major cause of heart disease, smoking raises blood pressure, causes blood clots, and lowers HDL (good cholesterol) levels. And it’s the number one preventable cause of premature death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.
Even though it may be one of the most difficult habits to quit, the rewards of stopping smoking are perhaps the greatest and most immediate.
When you toss the smokes, your heart risk goes down within just a few days of quitting. Within a year, your risk is cut by half. After 10 years of living smoke-free, it’s as if you never smoked at all, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, cardiologist and medical director of the New York University Women’s Heart Program.
2. Ignore that chest pain.
When your heart literally aches and you don’t know why, it’s time to get checked out.
If you have chest pains while exercising, that’s a red flag. But if it happens after a heavy meal, it’s more likely to be your stomach causing trouble, says Goldberg, who is an American Heart Association spokeswoman and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health.
Heart pain can feel more like a pressure rather than actual pain. People tend to feel it in the front of their chest, with the sensation sometimes extending into the shoulders, up into the jaw, or down the left arm. If you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest and you’re breaking out in a sweat, that’s an urgent matter. Call 911.
Regardless of what you’re feeling or when, even a doctor can’t tell if you’re in real trouble over the phone. So you have to seek medical attention in person to get a definitive answer for chest pain.
3. Just accept that it’s in your genes.
Having a family history of heart disease is a strong risk factor for predicting your own chances of heart trouble.
Having a parent who has had an early heart attack doubles the risk for men having one; in women the risk goes up by about 70%, according to an American Heart Association report from December 2010.
“But heart disease isn’t just what you inherit. It’s also what you do about it,” Goldberg tells WebMD. You can still beat the odds and dramatically lower your risks by doing other heart-friendly things.
For example, lowering your LDL (that’s the bad form of cholesterol) by 50% will cut your risks in half, Goldberg says.
And a 1998 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug can help people with a family history of heart disease lower their risk to less than someone with zero family history. That means in some cases, you could erase your risk.
But you can only be proactive if you actually know whether heart disease or stroke runs in your family. Take time to find out your family’s health history. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Bottom line: There’s no need to let your family history determine your destiny.
4. Skip your checkup.
When you don’t get checked out regularly by a doctor, you might not realize if you have some of the silent heart risk factors that are harder to detect, says Fonarow, who directs the Ahmanson-UCLA Cardiomyopathy Center.
Some of the most common, symptom-free cardiovascular issues are also some of the most easily treated, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
If the cost of a checkup is holding you back, you may have more options than you think. Federally funded health centers allow patients to pay what they can. And local hospitals often offer information about clinics that accept sliding scale payments. The new health care law has provisions for preventive care services, and coverage may be available. Call your local health department for leads.
5. Be a couch potato.
“Being sedentary increases heart risks. Physical activity simply translates to living longer,” Fonarow says.
Exercise helps lower blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, encourages weight loss, benefits blood vessel function, and cuts stress, among other things.
Even if you haven’t been active for the last 20 years, it’s never too late to make an impact with exercise. Just be sure to talk to a doctor before you start a new fitness regimen. Tell your doctor exactly what you plan to do, or ask his or her advice, if you're looking for suggestions.
6. Stop taking your medications.
If you stop taking your heart medications, you may be heading for a cardiac catastrophe.
“It’s only when you’re struck with a heart attack or stroke that many people think, ‘Oh, I should really keep taking my statin drug to lower my cholesterol,’” Fonarow says. He advises looking at heart medications as “insurance” against heart attack and stroke. Never stop a heart medication or adjust the dosage without first speaking with your doctor.
7. Forget your growing waistline -- just buy some bigger pants.
If your belt size is slowly getting bigger, that’s something to worry about.
Excess fat tissue in the midsection -- giving you an apple-shaped figure -- could mean metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of risk factors that can lead to heart disease, stroke, or diabetes, through hardening of the arteries, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
A hefty waistline is linked to doubling your risk of heart disease, Goldberg says. That’s good reason to redouble your efforts to get in shape through a healthy lifestyle. It's not just about your clothes size.
8. Never mind when your heart flutters.
A fluttering feeling in your heart that causes chest discomfort, shortness of breath, the feeling you could faint, or actual fainting could be a sign of a heart arrhythmia. That’s an electrical problem with your heart, causing it to beat either too fast, too slow, or just irregularly.
If you feel a flutter for a second and it goes away, that’s no big deal, Goldberg tells WebMD. You can probably chalk that up to caffeine, chocolate, asthma, or maybe some cold medications you took. But if it happens frequently or is associated with other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
9. Let your blood pressure run amok.
“A good way to wreck your heart is to leave your blood pressure elevated and untreated,” Fonarow says. Only about half of American adults with high blood pressure keep it under control, he says.
Allowing blood pressure to get out of hand makes the heart work harder and this can lead to heart failure. It can also cause hardened arteries, raising your risks for heart attack, stroke, and other problems.
Even though symptoms of high blood pressure are rare, it’s relatively easy to diagnose. You can even check it yourself with a home blood pressure monitor. Diet, exercise, and medications (if needed) can treat high blood pressure.
10. Eat with abandon.
Being overweight or obese contributes to heart disease, heart failure, and a shorter lifespan, Fonarow says.
No doubt, lasting weight loss is tough to accomplish. But the good news is, even moderate weight loss can improve heart risk factors.
Aim for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts; low in saturated fat and cholesterol; and with almost no trans fats. This does not mean you need to avoid fat altogether. Fats found in fish, olives and olive oil, nuts, and avocados are heart-healthy and should be eaten in moderation.
Reducing your calorie intake by 100 calories per day, will result in a 10 pound weight loss over a year (all else being equal). That’s one slice of bread, one serving of regular soda, or half a candy bar. Small changes add up to big results over time.