09c686c7eb8bdcea83bd0ae51062764820e99e11_image00Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of approximately one million people each year.The cost of treatment for heart conditions in 2010 was a staggering $108.9 billion dollars. Although it has traditionally been considered a man’s disease, women account for slightly over one half of the cardiac deaths in the US and are more likely to die within a year of having a heart attack than men.

Not to worry, though, because here’s the good news: studies reveal that heart disease can be prevented and controlled by making some important but basic changes to your lifestyle. In other words, it is up to you to take charge of your own cardiovascular health.

Here are the best ways to prevent heart issues:

Quit Smoking

You don’t have to be a scientist to know how bad smoking is. This vice causes damage to nearly every major organ in your body and is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Smoking harms your cardiovascular system by increasing the risk of atherosclerosis, a disease that causes plaque to build up in your arteries. The plaque eventually narrows your arteries and starves the body of oxygenated blood. When plaque accumulates in the coronary arteries, you develop coronary artery disease, a significant risk factor for heart attacks.

Even exposure to secondhand smoke increases your danger of coronary heart disease. Each year approximately 38,000 people die from heart disease simply by inhaling the cigarette smoke of people who live or work with them. If you have friends or family who smoke, insist that they refrain from smoking around you.

Lose Weight

Obesity is growing global problem, the result of a movement away from plant-based food sources, an over-reliance on processed foods, and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. It is also one of the top risk factors for heart disease.

Being overweight or obese places extra stress on the entire cardiovascular system, forcing the heart to work harder in order to reach the outer network of blood vessels. Intra-abdominal (belly) fat is especially dangerous because this type of fat interferes with the body’s ability to produce insulin and can lead to type 2 diabetes, another risk factor for developing coronary heart disease and heart failure.

If the circumference of your waist is larger than a certain amount—35 inches for a woman, 40 inches for a man—your risk factor increases. To prevent heart disease, it is important to keep your weight under control.

Opt for a Plant-Based Diet

Dean Ornish revolutionized the treatment of cardiovascular disease in 1990 by showing that a low-fat, plant-based diet could reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery. After one year of Ornish’s treatment, the x-rays of patients in the experimental group showed marked evidence of improvement; in fact, the patients found that their chest pain diminished after just a few weeks.

Eating plant-based foods helps to reduce blood pressure and high cholesterol, both significant risk factors for heart disease. The Framingham Heart Study, which spent decades compiling information about heart disease, found that no one with a total cholesterol level below 150 has ever had a heart attack.

Those who already have heart disease may achieve the best results by completely eliminating animal fat from their diet. For those who simply want to avoid getting heart disease, however, it may not be necessary to follow a vegan diet or even to become a vegetarian. You can reduce your risk factor by limiting processed food and commercial meat consumption while at the same time increasing the number of fruits and vegetables you eat to nine servings a day.

Get Regular Cardiovascular Exercise

Numerous studies over the last 40 years have shown that exercise plays an important role in maintaining cardiovascular health. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure, helps you lose weight, and brings down “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels while raising “good” (HDL) levels. Exercise also improves circulation and dilates blood vessels so that oxygen reaches all areas of the body more efficiently.

How much exercise should you get? The general consensus is that 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day is enough to reduce the risk of heart disease—the equivalent of burning 600-1,200 calories a week. For more information about exercise, read our article “How Much Exercise Is Too Much?

Manage Stress

Stress has long been noted as a factor in heart disease. In fact, you may have heard people speak of the “Type A” personality who drives him or herself to a heart attack by being aggressive, competitive, and ambitious. High personal drive, particularly in the workforce, is a leading cause of stress.

Keep in mind that what defines a stressful situation can be subjective, and you don’t have to be an obvious Type A person to experience chronic stress. Any traumatic incident, like divorce or a job loss, can be enough to flood your body with dangerous levels of stress hormones. The resulting inflammation is linked to heart disease.

Self-care aimed at reducing stress is essential for optimum cardiovascular health. Meditation, yoga, controlled breathing, therapeutic conversations with professionals, and good old-fashioned laughter can help you to develop a sense of inner calm.

Preventing heart disease is an integrative approach. Exercise promotes weight loss and reduces stress. A plant-based diet encourages you to consume fewer calories and to spend more time preparing food, offering you a chance to slow down and relax. And as you build these new lifestyle habits, you will feel better about yourself, spurring on the desire to make even more heart-healthy decisions. It’s a treatment that is good for life.

The articles on this website are not to be construed as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.