Last week, the American Heart Association (AHA) published a bold statement: Nearly half of American adults are living with some form of cardiovascular disease. The statistic came from a new report published in the AHA’s journal, Circulation, which reported its annual update on the disease. Half is a huge chunk of the population, and one that’s sure to frighten at least as many of us as supposedly have it. But understanding where this number came from could help dispel fears, and lead to finding solutions to this growing health problem.
The 48 percent of Americans who now fit into the AHA’s definition of heart disease is a huge increase from last year’s numbers. The reason for the jump lies in the new guidelines for high blood pressure. In 2017, the AHA and American College of Cardiology lowered the acceptable healthy level of blood pressure from 140/90 mm Hg to 130/80 mm Hg. Because high blood pressure is a key risk factor for other more dangerous forms of cardiovascular disease like atherosclerosis, stroke, and heart disease, including it, doctors argue, could be a key way to prevent far more dangerous forms of the umbrella condition of cardiovascular disease.
“Identifying individuals because of their blood pressure is worthwhile,” says Jeffrey Berger, a preventative cardiologist at NYU Langone Health and the co-director of the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease there. “It’s a smart way not to necessarily put someone into a bucket but to identify them as being at an increased risk for a potentially life-threatening event.”
While it’s not necessarily true that half of America has had a major cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke, statistics show that it can be clearly argued that half of us are at some level of risk (large or super small) of having one of these events.
So what do we do? Berger says patients have far more power and control over this disease than they think. While genetics can indeed play a role in the disease’s progress and development, “Many people believe that doctors and medications are the best way to prevent cardiovascular disease. I think that that is a false belief,” says Berger. “Patients can have a tremendous impact on their risk of developing heart disease or stroke.”
Here are three easy, research-backed ways to improve your heart health.
The heart contains multiple muscles that, just like any other muscle group in the body, get stronger and functions more efficiently the more you use it. The key idea behind this, Berger says, is that it doesn’t have to necessarily be “vigorous exercise.” Any activity that gets your heart rate up is key.
While six to seven days of strenuous exercise in 30 to 45 minutes bursts is ideal, any activity is better than none. An August 2018 study—one of the largest to date demonstrating the connection between exercise and cardiovascular disease risk—found that even individuals with increased genetic risk of heart disease were able to reduce that risk with exercise. Many other studies have found similar results.
Berger tells his patients that even simple things incorporated into daily routines can be significant. “Walking up steps, one or two flights, several times a day, can make a big difference.” Other things like alternating between standing and sitting at your desk or walking to and from work or the local grocery store are all small things that, done everyday, can make a big impact.
What you put into your body is also key. This is especially important for lowering blood pressure, says Berger. On the whole, increasing the amounts of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, like olive and canola oil are key. There’s also one thing that no one eats enough of, but study after study show it to be key for both lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as overall mortality: fiber. While the exact mechanism for fiber’s powerful health-punch hasn’t been completely nailed down yet, research shows a clear connection between increasing fiber intake and lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Certain nutrition programs and diets are better than others at maintaining cardiovascular health. According to Berger, the diet with perhaps the most amount of mature, science-backed research in preventing cardiovascular disease is the Mediterranean Diet. Additionally, Berger also recommends the DASH diet (that’s Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) for supporting blood pressure control.
When people follow the Mediterranean diet, there’s often one thing they forget about: relaxation. A healthy diet is more of a lifestyle than just a way of eating.
Without a doubt, says Berger, stress increases your cardiovascular risk. Increased stress is also associated with heart attacks and strokes. “I think we need to do a better job at identifying stress and then providing mechanisms for patients for how to deal with their stress.” Berger says he tells his patients simple things like finding ten or fifteen minutes a day to either self meditate or do some yoga. “Anything that will allow them to relax.”
While heart disease is always multifactorial, Berger says stress is a key health factor that can’t be ignored. However, it’s often something that gets overlooked in most doctor’s office settings. The limited amount of time doctors have with any one patient means that much of that time must be taken up with conversations about medication tweaks, side effects, and potential symptoms that need immediate or close attention.
Cardiovascular disease is often a chronic problem that builds up over years and years. Living a healthy lifestyle—exercising when you can, eating healthy, and managing stress—will, overtime, likely decrease your chances of cardiovascular disease. And for most Americans, it seems, there’s no better time to start than now.