Simple lifestyle changes that will boost your heart health

Amy Doneen, ARNP Medical Director and Author Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center

Did you know that chocolate, listening to music, and watching comedies can all be prescriptions for a healthier heart? A variety of simple lifestyle changes offer remarkably powerful protection against a heart attack, cutting risk by up to 800 percent. Some of the easy—often enjoyable— actions suggested may surprise or even delight you. Here’s a look at some lifestyle advice that do your heart good.


Do nibble on dark chocolate

Amazing, but true: eating dark chocolate could actually help save your life. A recent study published in European Heart Journal reports that people who ate an average of 7.5 grams of chocolate a day were 27 percent less likely to have heart attacks and 48 percent less likely to have strokes than those who ate less than one gram per day, even after risk factors were taken into account. The researchers tracked more than 19,000 people for an average of eight years. Other studies have found beneficial effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and insulin resistance.

You should eat one or two squares (7 to 10 grams) of dark chocolate that is at least 72 percent cocoa daily, a prescription for better heart health that our patients are delighted to follow. Dark chocolate contains powerful disease-fighting antioxidants called flavonols, which are also found in tea, wine, and certain fruits and vegetables. Don’t bother with milk or white chocolate for health benefits, since they don’t contain the flavonols you need.

Do bust your stress

Research shows remarkably powerful cardiovascular benefits from taking time off to kick back and recharge. Likewise, it’s important to have stress-relief strategies that you’re able to use every day. Here are some stress-busters that do wonders for both your heart and your mood:

  • Laughter. It’s no joke: a good laugh expands blood vessels and increases blood flow to the heart. Laughter yoga, which combines deep yogic breathing and self-triggered mirth is also a great ways to relax after a stressful day. A recent study found that after just three weeks of laughter yoga, participants had significant drops in blood pressure.
  • Have a cup of tea. British researchers found that people who drank black tea were able to relax after a stressful task more quickly than those who drank a fake tea substitute.
  • Play your favorite song. Listening to enjoyable music can dilate arteries, increasing blood flow as much as statin medication or aerobic exercise, according to a study presented at the American Heart Association 2008 Scientific Sessions.

Do brush your teeth

Almost seventy-five percent of Americans have some degree of gum disease – and many don’t know they have it because, in the early stages, this chronic infection is painless and doesn’t cause obvious signs such as recessed gums. Nonetheless, people with gum disease have double or even triple the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Get a screening from your dentist or dental hygienist. If you have gum disease, improve your brushing and flossing habits, and be sure to get a complete physical exam including checks for diabetes and high cholesterol.

Do get a flu shot

Adults who are vaccinated against influenza have a 50-percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality, a large study found. The researchers also report that up to 91,000 Americans die each year from cardiovascular events triggered by the flu. Another recent study reported that people who are vaccinated early in the flu season have a greater reduction in heart-attack risk than those who wait until mid-November to get the shot. And here’s even more motivation to get immunized against flu: doing so also lowers risk for getting a blood clot in your lungs or in your legs.


Do not skimp on sleep

Sleeping fewer than six hours a night doubles heart attack and stroke risk, and boosts the threat of congestive heart failure by 70 percent, compared to catching six to eight hours of Z’s per night, according to a 2012 study of more than 3,000 people. Other recent research links skimping on slumber to higher risk for obesity and diabetes. Among the best ways to improve sleep naturally are having a consistent bedtime and wakeup time, even on weekends; avoiding watching TV in the bedroom; dimming the lights and avoiding computer use during the hour before bed; taking a warm, relaxing bath in the evening and scenting your pillow with lavender, a soothing aroma with a well-deserved reputation for improving sleep quality. Sleep doctors call these relaxing rituals and habits “good sleep hygiene.”

Do not drink sugary drinks

A long-term study of more than 42,000 men, ages 40 to 75, found that those who swilled sugar-sweetened beverages the most often were 20 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks. The researchers calculated that having just one 12-ounce sweet drink a daily boosted the relative risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 19 percent. Another large study reported similar harm in women who consumed sugary beverages. Nor are diet soft drinks a healthy alternative. Drinking these beverages daily was linked to a 43 percent rise in heart attack, stroke, and death from vascular disease during the ten-year study of 2,500 adults over age 40. The diet-soda drinkers were also more likely to have high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and larger waistlines than those who abstained from diet drinks.

Instead, you should drink eight glasses of water daily for healthy hydration with zero calories. Coffee also has a remarkable array of health perks, including reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, gallstones, several forms of cancer and even superbug infections like MRSA. Another delicious and invigorating beverage is green tea, which not only improves the health of your blood vessel lining and fights inflammation, but also lowers risk for gum disease and at least nine forms of cancer.

Do not breathe secondhand smoke

Secondhand smoke kills more than 42,000 nonsmokers a year, according to a scary 2012 University of California, San Francisco study. Most of these fatalities (34,000) are due to heart disease, the researchers reported. More frightening facts: tobacco fumes contain hundreds of toxins, at least 70 of which are known to cause cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke boosts risk for heart disease by up to 30 percent, while smoking quadruples the danger.

Do not skip exercise

Two groundbreaking new studies reveal why exercise offers powerful protection against chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—and also helps people live longer and feel more youthful. Physical activity enhances “autophagy,” the process cells use to clear out debris (such as broken down cellular components) and recycle it as fuel. Without this housekeeping process, cells would become choked with trash and die. Slowing down of autophagy is linked to a wide range of diseases and also is believed to play a major role in aging.

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Achieving an optimal lifestyle is a key part of improving heart health. With such pleasurable and easy changes as adding chocolate to your diet, getting enough sleep, and laughing, following this prescription is not a tough pill to swallow!

More expert advice about Heart Disease

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Amy Doneen, ARNPMedical Director and Author

Amy L. Doneen, ARNP is co-founder of the Bale/Doneen Method, which she and co-founder Bradley F. Bale, MD teach to healthcare providers. Their research on cardiovascular disease prevention has been published in such respected medical journals as...

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