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Master the Basics
You probably weren't thinking about your ticker in your 20s—really, who does?—so now's the decade to start following some cardiac rules. Do: Find a workout you love (at least for 30 minutes a day) to keep your weight in the normal range and your blood pressure in check. Don't: Smoke, indulge in fast food, or skimp on zzz's. "The more tired you are, the likelier you are to make poor food choices," says Sarah Samaan, MD, a cardiologist at The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano in Plano, Texas, and author of Best Practices for a Healthy Heart.
Look into the Past
"I commonly see patients who say "I'm healthy, I don't smoke, I'm thin, but my father had a heart attack at 40,'" reveals Chris Magovern, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey. "When you have a relative who died suddenly, this is a major warning sign to discuss with your doctor." If you're not sure about your family health history, start drafting one for yourself—and your kids.
Spot Secret Stressors
Sure, juggling carpooling duties and credit card bills can tense you up. But don't forget more subtle sources of pressure that need taming, like preparing your household for a big snowstorm or being ignored by a store employee. Whether you turn to massage or a manager, find positive ways to avoid or get rid of anxiety. Stress sparks the release of the hormones cortisol (which increases blood sugar levels) and adrenaline (which can raise your blood pressure).
Pay Attention to All Symptoms
When she was 36, Kathy Doyle experienced constant migraines after the death of her mom and the birth of her third child. Then one day she was sitting in her car and felt a pain as if she had been shot in the back of her head. "After that I felt like my left side melted away," says the stroke survivor from Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Doyle had written off her migraines as stress, but they can up your risk of stroke. "I should have called the doctor right away," she laments. Stroke rates have recently risen dramatically for young women. Know the signs, including sudden numbness (especially on one side of the body), confusion, trouble seeing, and dizziness.
Sip a Blueberry Smoothie
To whip one up, place 1/2 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, 1 banana, 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt and 2 ice cubes in a blender and pulse, suggests Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, a New York-based nutrition expert and author of Read It Before You Eat It. Blueberries may help reduce heart attack risk, regularly eating yogurt can decrease your chances of developing high blood pressure, and potassium-rich bananas slash hypertension and stroke risk.
Try a One-Minute Fix
Floss. "There's a definite link between the health of your gums and heart attack and stroke risk that scientists are working to explain," says Tracy Stevens, MD, a cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. Until then, play it safe with good dental habits.
Switch Up Your Strategy
Unfortunately, this is often the age when the scale starts to shift. "Women will tell me they can't maintain their weight even though they haven't changed how they're eating and exercising," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. It's time to rethink your diet. Belly fat, especially, can be traced directly to simple carbs, like cake, candy, or alcohol. "My patients are surprised when I tell them to limit themselves to one alcoholic beverage a day," Goldberg says. "Although studies suggest beer, wine, and spirits in moderation may reduce your risk of heart disease, you can get too much of a good thing."
Learn Your Calorie Burn
It's one thing to count calories coming in—through your meals. It's another to track calories going out—particularly when you're not exercising. "If you know how many calories you're burning overall, you can create a more accurate calorie budget to reach your weight-loss goals," says Holly Parker, PhD, a lecturer in the psychology department at Harvard University and a certified personal trainer. Visit livestrong.com to estimate your burn rate.
Get In-Depth Testing
In addition to an annual blood pressure screening, your doctor may order an EKG if you have a family history of heart attacks at a young age. A heart-focused CT scan to look for calcifications in your arteries might also be useful if you are 45 or older, have moderately high cholesterol, or have a family history of heart disease, says Samaan.
Don't Push Through Pain
Christine Wanamaker, a 49-year-old mom of two in Laguna Niguel, California, and an American Heart Association Go Red for Women campaign spokesperson, had ongoing leg pain for four months before the day her life changed three years ago. "I was doing playground duty at my kids' school and was carrying a lightweight table when I felt intense radiating pain in my chest," she recalls. "That, along with the pain in my left arm, told me something was wrong." When she arrived at the ER, she was immediately given four baby aspirin. Ultimately, she had a quadruple bypass. Leg pain can be a warning sign that you're at high risk for a heart attack. Don't self-diagnose—ask your doctor.
Research Nearby Hospitals
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst by looking up your local medical centers' credentials online. "If you have a history of heart disease or diabetes, you'll want to know which hospitals nearby are following guidelines for good cardiovascular care," says Rose Marie Robertson, MD, chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association. For a list of hospitals in your area accredited by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association, go to familycircle.com/heart.
Try a One-Minute Fix
Work up to holding a plank for 60 seconds or do walking lunges while you watch TV. Hopefully, a taste of strength training will make you hungry for more, since a full workout can help lower your blood pressure by a few points, Parker says. Start small and build to big results.
Snack on a Red Bean Dip
Not only are beans low in fat, but they're high in fiber and can help improve cholesterol levels. Seek out colorful beans (like red ones) for their extra flavonoids, which can protect against heart disease. Taub-Dix suggests blending 1 can drained red kidney beans, 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 tablespoon sliced scallions, and 1/2 cup diced avocado, salt and pepper. Serve with crunchy veggies.
Pair Up with a Friend
Let exercise do double duty by making it social too. "Connecting with others is an essential part of keeping your heart healthy," Parker says. "Walk with a friend during lunch hour at work. On weekends, challenge yourselves to walk one more block or hit a new trail."
Beware of More Than Hot Flashes
With menopause on the horizon (the average age is 51), your risk for heart attack and stroke increases. Some experts believe estrogen may be protective, helping to keep blood vessels flexible. You could experience heart palpitations too, due to changing hormones. Scientists are still researching how perimenopause and menopause specifically affect the heart. But, bottom line, it's better to go into this "change of life" as healthy as possible.
Revamp Your Routine
"Each woman has her own set of lifestyle habits that influence her risk of cardiovascular disease throughout the menopausal transition," says Elizabeth A. Jackson, MD, director of the Women's Heart Program at the University of Michigan Hospital and Health Systems. Diet, exercise, and stress levels are all important, but in general, stay fit and aim to keep your weight within 10% to 20% of the ideal. Your heart disease risk rises when you're overweight or obese.
Go Fish Twice a Week
Aim to eat fatty fish, like wild salmon, which is packed with omega-3 fatty acids that help decrease inflammation and control cholesterol levels, suggests Taub-Dix. Make a marinade by blending 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, and 1 finely minced garlic clove. Place salmon in a bowl and cover with marinade for 10 minutes. Transfer salmon to a baking sheet and cook (skin side down) for 15 minutes at 425 degrees.
Watch Underlying Conditions
By this decade, it's even more risky to ignore irregular test results. Viviann Ferea, 62, an education program assistant in San Jose, California, had hypertension for a decade before she got checked and was put on medication. "Although taking meds is no fun, my prescription recently changed to a two-in-one pill," says Ferea, who cautions against ignoring this silent killer. "I take it with my vitamins and feel like I'm doing something healthy instead of viewing myself as someone with a condition."
Request This Test
During your annual physical, consider asking for a specialized Vertical Auto Profile (VAP) test, a detailed lipid profile that helps identify plaque build-up in your arteries. "If that cholesterol test comes back abnormal, see a specialist," says Cynthia Thaik, MD, a cardiologist in Burbank, California, and author of Your Vibrant Heart.
Try a One-Minute Fix
Buy a pedometer to ensure that you're taking the recommended 10,000 steps a day (the equivalent of approximately 5 miles). It's good not just for your heart, but for your body and spirit as well.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.