Earlier this year, a study in the journal Circulation reported that heart disease was still the #1 cause of death worldwide. What’s more: scientists believe the lifestyle disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will extend that grim run at the top. “The extraordinary circumstances of dealing with COVID-19 have changed the way we live, including adopting unhealthy behaviors that are known to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke,” said Salim S. Virani, MD, Ph.D., FAHA, associate professor of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “The full ramifications will likely be felt for many years to come.”
If, like many of us, you found your healthy habits disrupted by the pandemic, and you’re concerned about your heart health, these are the most important places to get back on track. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You Have “Long” COVID and May Not Even Know It.
In 2018, the American Heart Association lowered the guideline for healthy blood pressure from below 140/90 to below 120/80. That means up to 8 out of 10 men over age 55 technically have high blood pressure (hypertension). Over time, hypertension can weaken the walls of blood vessels, increasing your risk of a heart attack—not to mention stroke and dementia. To lower your risk, get your blood pressure checked regularly, and follow your doctor’s advice on how to keep it in a healthy range. The biggest pro tips: Eat a heart-healthy diet (like Mediterranean or DASH), maintain an optimal weight, and stay active.
As we age, the body naturally produces more cholesterol, which can build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. Experts advise getting your cholesterol checked every five years. Older adults may need to be checked more often. Your total cholesterol level should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), with an LDL (“bad cholesterol”) of less than 100 mg/dL and an HDL (“good cholesterol”) level of 60 mg/dL or higher.
To keep your levels in good stead, eat a diet low in saturated fat and trans fats, exercise most days of the week, and keep your weight in an ideal range. If your bad cholesterol is high, it’s not necessarily because of your diet—your doctor may advise taking medication to keep your heart healthy. The first step is getting checked.
It’s not just cholesterol that can wreck your heart. Consuming too much added sugar—whether it’s in sodas and cookies or the processed foods you’d never expect (hello, canned pasta sauce)—is a major risk factor for heart disease. Added sugar intake can lead to blood pressure, bodily inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease, all conditions that can skyrocket your chance of having a heart attack. The American Heart Association advises that adults consume no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams) of added sugar daily. That’s about the amount in one can of soda.
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Even before the pandemic forced most of us indoors and out of our gym routines, only 20 percent of Americans were following the American Heart Association’s weekly exercise guidelines for heart health: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise), plus muscle-strengthening exercise two times a week. For your heart’s sake, get up and get moving, even if it’s just a walk around the block. A little exercise is better than none.
The past 14 months of pandemic have pushed stress levels into the stratosphere, leading many of us to lean on unhealthy habits like smoking to cope. Now is the time to come back down to earth. Experts say that cigarette smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death. A big reason why: The toxins in tobacco smoke damage arteries, spiking your risk of a heart attack. If you’re having trouble kicking the habit, your doctor can help. And know that it’s never too late: Even people who quit smoking between the ages of 65 to 69 can add one to four years to their lives.
Alcohol’s effect on your liver is well-known, but excessive drinking can take a serious toll on your heart too. It can raise your blood pressure and increase triglycerides, the level of fats in the blood. Experts advise moderation: Women should have no more than one drink a day, and men should say when at two. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.