Right now, the coronavirus is the #1 health concern in the land, but keeping your heart healthy should also remain paramount: Heart disease remains the #1 cause of death in America, according to the CDC, with 655,381 dying from it yearly. And since COVID-19 can cause heart problems, it makes sense to make sure your ticker is ticking properly. "Even if we feel healthy now, the point of this is to avoid a heart attack in the next 10 to 20 years," says cardiologist Tarak Rambhatla, MD, about the importance of yearly physicals to suss out potential issues. "If we have underlying cardiac risk factors that we don't realize, those can progress to real disease in 10-15 years," he says. "If you at least know those numbers, it will give you a good framework for identifying risk factors [for heart attacks and disease]." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.
Get Your Flu Shot
Flu? And heart health? What's the connection? This: Adults over 65 are more likely to experience fatal flu complications, including heart attacks. That's why cardiologists like Allen J. Taylor, MD, Chair of Cardiology at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute, get flu shots every year. "Many individuals are unaware that their risk of a heart attack increases by up to 10 times in the days and weeks after an acute flu infection," he says. A flu shot can also ensure you don't get the flu on top of coronavirus, a potentially deadly double-threat.
Moderate Your Stress Levels
"Stress hormones can cause an increase in cortisol which causes an increase in visceral fat (fat around your organs) which directly impacts heart health," says Andrea Paul, MD. Stress can increase adrenaline, a hormone that kicks in your "fight or flight" response—and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Keeping those numbers elevated creates an inflammatory response in the body, which in turn can cause heart issues, including heart disease and even heart attacks.
Unglue Yourself From Your Phone
Cardiologists—like most of us—are glued to their phones. While they have to be available for work reasons, they also know the value in shutting down.
And they're right: A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that "constant checkers"—or people who are always looking at social media, email, and other apps on their smartphones—are more stressed than those who aren't. "Take a holiday from your smart devices on the weekend," recommends Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and American Heart Association volunteer expert. "Choose a weekend day to take a break."
"Chemicals in processed foods, pesticides, alcohol, nicotine, recreational drugs, and sweeteners all put strain on the cardiovascular system," says Shae Leonard, a licensed Physician Assistant and functional medicine clinician. "This causes oxidative stress leading to vessel damage, deposit buildup, and cardiovascular disease."
Pay Attention to Your Blood Sugar
"Increased blood sugar is where it starts (leads to oxidative damage to arteries, endothelial dysfunction, hypertension, and eventually plague and cholesterol buildup/blockages," says Leonard. "Get lab work done regularly to strive for optimal levels not just 'normal' or 'within normal limits'; this is not optimal."
Get a Good Night's Sleep
"Always allow enough time to sleep 8 – 9 hours each night," says Dr. Beverly Yates. "Create and maintain a healthy sleep schedule. Go to sleep at the same time each night and awaken at the same time each morning."
Push Away From the Table
"Pay attention to whether you are hungry when you eat. Pause frequently when eating so that your body has time to notice whether you are full," says Dr. Poston. "Keep track of your eating habits to see if you are eating out of boredom or to ease stress."
"Any amount of exercise is better than none at all," says Leann Poston, MD. "Set a goal whether it is steps per day, climbing stairs, or just participating more in any activity that gives you pleasure and requires movement."
"The best exercise for your heart is the exercise you will actually do," says Dr. Yates. "Consistency matters."
Worried that your morning cup—or three—of joe will hurt your heart? Don't be. "Fortunately, coffee is still OK and even somewhat protective for heart disease and diabetes," says Richard Collins, MD, a cardiologist based in Littleton, Colorado.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that even drinking as many as 25 cups of coffee a day won't impact your heart. While most of us don't drink that much, another study by German researchers found that drinking four cups can help endothelial cells—or cells that line the inside of blood vessels—function better, which in turn can help the heart pump blood more effectively.
Don't Forget About Your Vitamins
"The most important dietary stress leading to heart disease is a deficiency of B12 and folate. A deficit in either of these causes an increase in the cellular waste product homocysteine," says Sheldon Zablow, MD. "As this toxin increases, it causes inflammation of the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels in the heart and it increases the thickness of the blood. This combination causes an increase in blood clots which leads to heart disease and strokes."
While the American Heart Association recommends 2,300 mg of sodium a day maximum, the average adult consumes more than 3,400 mg. This can spell trouble for your health because sodium is one of the leading contributors to high blood pressure, one of the risk factors for heart disease and heart attacks.
Avoid those risks by limiting added salt as much as possible.
"For packaged foods, the nutrition fact panel may be useful in identifying lower sodium products, and for menu items, diners can request sodium content information," said the study's lead researcher, Lisa J. Harnack, Dr.PH., professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Also, if you frequently add salt to food at the table or in home food preparation, consider using less."
"Over time, smoking contributes to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in arteries) and increases your risk of having and dying from heart disease, heart failure, or a heart attack," says The NIH. "Compared with nonsmokers, people who smoke are more likely to have heart disease and suffer from a heart attack."
Avoid Heavy Alcohol Drinking
While a few drinks can be good for heart health, such as raising your "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels, if you don't already drink, your heart shouldn't be a reason to start.
"Regular or high alcohol use can hurt your heart and lead to diseases of the heart muscle, called cardiomyopathy," says WebMD. "Drinking alcohol regularly also can raise your blood pressure."
Invest in Self Care
"My best advice to myself, friends/family and patients is to take a hard stance on 20-30 minutes of self-care which can take the form of meditation or relaxation other than screen time," says Sonal Chandra, MD. "This self-work takes precedence over any other work—the rest can wait!" So follow those fundamental mitigation measures for your heart, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.