Maintaining a healthy heart is a challenge for many people. It requires dedication to a workout regimen, eating healthy food and staying in touch with your doctor about your cardiovascular disease risk factors (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and more).
Cardiovascular disease ― which includes heart disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmia and heart valve problems ― is the No. 1 killer of Americans, according to Dr. Leslie Cho, the section head of preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. Every 34 seconds, someone in the U.S. dies of cardiovascular disease.
This all may sound pretty scary, and it is. But “90% of heart disease is preventable,” Cho said. And those preventable measures are outlined in the American Heart Association’s recently updated Life’s Essential 8, which is described by AHA as “key measures for improving and maintaining cardiovascular health.”
Sleep is now included in the guidelines.
For the first time, sleep is included in the heart health guidelines because it is “vital to cardiovascular health,” according to the AHA. Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night to have an optimal immune system, for cell, blood vessel and tissue restoration, to improve brain function and to lessen the risk of chronic disease.
“There’s lots of data about Americans not getting enough sleep or having bad sleep, and we know a lot more about if you have poor sleep, that really increases your risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but also things like high blood pressure and heart failure,” Cho said.
She added that studies show sleep deprivation can also increase cardiovascular risk factors like obesity and diabetes. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.
And there is even more risk for people with sleep apnea, a condition in which you stop breathing in your sleep. The condition has “been linked to things like high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and heart failure,” Cho said, noting that it’s important to talk to your doctors about your quality of sleep to see if you might be suffering from sleep apnea or another sleep issue.
Secondhand smoke and vaping are now official risk factors (though they were already well-known risks).
Quitting smoking has always been an important way to cut your risk of cardiovascular disease, but now the guidelines explicitly include the dangers of secondhand smoke and vaping.
According to the AHA, “about a third of U.S. children ages 3-11 are exposed to secondhand smoke or vaping,” and both are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancer.
“In modern America, we’ve been led to believe that vaping is better than smoking, and that’s actually not true,” Cho said. Vaping can cause lung problems and cancer, and delivers nicotine, which is highly addictive, she said.
The guidelines also underscore the importance of other healthy lifestyle habits.
Beyond quitting smoking and getting good sleep, the guidelines include things that are proven to help maintain and or improve heart health: exercise, eating well, keeping cardiovascular risk factors in check and more.
It may feel pretty daunting to commit to all of these goals, but you can do so little by little until you create a new routine. Try going for a 21-minute walk a few times a week, for example. Once you’re ready, you can up your frequency to every day, which Harvard Health says can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%.
Other ways to start your heart health journey? Make an appointment to check in on your cholesterol and blood pressure or swap in salads for lunch a few days a week.
The American Heart Association encourages everyone to follow these guidelines in addition to those mentioned above:
- Eating well: Maintaining a diet that consists of lean protein (like chicken and turkey), fruit, vegetables, nuts and more. The guidelines also stressed that a Mediterranean diet (a diet rich in veggies, beans, fish and fruit) is good for reducing heart disease.
- Being active: The AHA says adults should get at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running or swimming) or 2.5 hours of moderate exercise (like gardening or brisk walking) every week.
- Watching your weight: Keeping track of your weight is important because obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Monitoring your cholesterol: Having high cholesterol, particularly high low-density lipoprotein or LDL (also known as bad cholesterol), can cause stroke, heart disease and more.
- Watching your blood sugar: High blood sugar levels can cause heart and kidney damage.
- Managing your blood pressure: Having high blood pressure can put you at higher risk of heart attack and heart disease, according to the CDC.
“Honestly, this is not bad news, this is great news … you can do something, you’re in control” of your heart health, Cho said.