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Keep Your Heart Healthy

Content last updated on:
November 25, 2014

The Basics

You can take steps today to lower your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

To help prevent heart disease, you can:

  • Eat healthy and get active.
  • Watch your weight.
  • Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
  • Control your cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) and blood pressure.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
  • Take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Manage stress.

Am I at risk for heart disease?
You are at higher risk for heart disease if:

  • You are a woman over age 55
  • You are a man over age 45
  • Your father or brother had heart disease before age 55
  • Your mother or sister had heart disease before age 65

As you get older, your risk for heart disease and having a heart attack increases. But the good news is that heart disease can be prevented.

What is heart disease?
When people talk about heart disease, they are usually talking about coronary heart disease (CHD). It’s also called coronary artery disease (CAD). This is the most common type of heart disease.

When someone has CHD, the coronary arteries (tubes) that take blood to the heart are narrow or blocked. This happens when cholesterol and fatty material, called plaque (“plak”), build up inside the arteries.

Plaque is caused by:

  • Fat and cholesterol in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Too much sugar in the blood (usually because of diabetes)

When plaque blocks an artery, it’s hard for blood to flow to the heart. A blocked artery can cause chest pain or a heart attack.

Learn more about CHD.

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked. Part of the heart may die if the person doesn’t get help quickly.

Common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain (or a feeling like pressure, squeezing, or fullness)
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body – like the arms, back, neck, jaw, or upper stomach (above the belly button)
  • Trouble breathing (while resting or being active)
  • Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or unusually tired
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Not everyone who has a heart attack will have all the signs. Learn more about the signs of a heart attack.

Don’t ignore changes in how you feel.
Signs of a heart attack often come on suddenly. But sometimes, they develop slowly – hours, days, or even weeks before a heart attack happens.

Talk to your doctor if you feel tired for several days, or if other health problems (like pain or trouble breathing) bother you more than usual.

Call 911 right away if you or someone else has signs of a heart attack.
Don’t ignore any signs or feel embarrassed to call for help. Acting fast can save a life. Call 911 even if you are not sure it’s a heart attack.

An ambulance is the best and safest way to get to the hospital. In an ambulance, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) can keep track of how you are doing and start life-saving treatments right away.

People who call an ambulance often get treated faster at the hospital. And, if you call 911, the operator can tell you what to do until the ambulance gets there.

Take Action!

Take Action!

Take steps today to lower your risk for heart disease.

Know your numbers.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol can cause heart disease and heart attack.

Get your cholesterol checked.
Men need to get their cholesterol checked at least once every 5 years. Women at risk for heart disease need to get their cholesterol checked once every 5 years. Talk with your doctor about getting your cholesterol checked.

Get your blood pressure checked.
Starting at age 18, get your blood pressure checked at least once every 2 years. High blood pressure has no signs or symptoms.

Use the myhealthfinder tool to get more screening recommendations based on your age and sex.

Know your family’s health history.
Your family history affects your risk for heart disease. Use this family health history tool to keep track of your family’s health. Share this information with your doctor or nurse.

If you are worried about a family member’s risk for heart disease, use these tips to start a conversation about heart health.

Quit smoking.
Quitting smoking helps lower your risk of having a heart attack. Call 1-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your plan for quitting.

Talk with your doctor about taking aspirin every day.
Daily aspirin can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by preventing blood clots. A blood clot can cause a heart attack or stroke if it blocks the flow of blood to your heart or brain.

Aspirin is not recommended for everyone. Talk with your doctor to find out if taking aspirin is the right choice for you.

Eat healthy.
Eating healthy can help lower your risk of heart disease. A heart-healthy diet includes foods that are low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats, sugar, and sodium (salt).

Heart-healthy items include high-fiber foods (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and certain fats (like the fats in olive oil and fish). Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods.

Check out these heart-healthy recipe collections:

Get heart-healthy tips for dining out [PDF - 3 MB]. For example, ask for a side salad instead of chips or french fries.

Watch your weight.
Take steps to watch your weight. Extra weight can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you are overweight or obese, losing just 10 pounds can lower your risk of heart disease.

Use this calculator to figure out your BMI (body mass index).

Get active.
Getting active can help prevent heart disease. Adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. This includes walking fast, dancing, and biking.

If you are just getting started, try walking for 10 minutes a day, a few days each week. Then add more activity over time.

Drink alcohol only in moderation.
Drinking alcohol only in moderation can help lower your risk of heart disease. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit your drinking to no more than 1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks a day for men.

Manage stress.
Managing stress can help prevent serious health problems like heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure.

Take steps to prevent type 2 diabetes.
When you have diabetes, there is too much glucose (sugar) in your blood. Over time, if it’s not controlled, diabetes can cause serious health problems, including heart disease.

Taking steps to prevent type 2 diabetes – like eating healthy and getting active – can help keep your heart healthy.

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Start Today: Small Steps