What Cardiologists Tell Their Friends

What's better than having a fashionista or a foodie as a BFF? Being pals with a heart doctor. The health advice these experts give their nearest and dearest can help you live longer, healthier, and more sanely. By Lisa Mulcahy, REDBOOK.

"Go easy with the exercise"
"A lot of my female friends are very focused on staying fit, and that's great. But new research shows that running even 20 to 25 miles a week, which a lot of women log, can actually age your heart. Repeated excessive effort can overstretch the heart muscle, causing micro-size tears--damage that is often seen in marathon runners. The scary truth is that it can reverse the benefits of cardio exercise, putting you in the same fitness boat as couch potatoes who never work out! I have a friend who is a triathlete--she swims, runs, and bikes every day--and I told her, 'If you want to see the Olympics in 2052, start cutting back your workouts now.' It's fine to run, but don't clock more than four running days per week or more than about four miles per run. The other three days? Take a walk!" --James O'Keefe, M.D., preventive cardiologist at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO

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"Try not to wake up before 5 a.m."
"One friend of mine, a CEO of a very successful company, prides himself on getting out of bed at 4:30 to get a jump on his business competition. I told him, 'If you don't let yourself sleep till 5, you're setting yourself up for a heart attack.' He laughed, 'I'm too rich to die!' But he listened when I told him that most people's internal clock resets itself every morning at approximately 5 a.m. Wake up before that and your stress hormones can surge--this is one reason why most heart attacks occur around 3 or 4 a.m. Making this adjustment won't destroy your career, but it potentially will save your life." --Lisa Matzer, M.D., cardiologist in Los Angeles

"Don't use the Pill past age 40"
"If a friend of mine who is over 40 mentions to me that she's on the Pill, I'm not shy about advising her to get off it right away. As you get older, you really have to pay attention to how estrogen can potentially cause damage to your heart. Most women don't think about this when choosing contraception, but birth control pills can lead to blood clots that could cause a heart attack or stroke in women in their mid-30s to late 40s. The good news? Once you go off the Pill, your hormones regulate quickly and your heart-attack or stroke risk will go away in about six weeks." --Karla Kurrelmeyer, M.D., cardiologist with the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center in Houston

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"Any soda is too much soda"
"Most of us grew up with the idea that soda in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. But science is now telling us that those who drink just one serving a day have an increased risk of a heart attack. A can of regular soda packs the equivalent of 14 teaspoons of sugar, and unlike the white stuff in solid foods, liquid sugar in soda is absorbed by the body immediately. That's one reason why drinking soda regularly results in low levels of HDL, the protective cholesterol that prevents heart attacks. If friends or family members still drink regular soda, I tell them to quit it." --Jeff Ritterman, M.D., cardiologist in Richmond, CA

"Think twice about throwing surprise parties"
"A woman I know was thrown a birthday party--she walked into a dark room, everyone yelled 'Surprise!' and she was so stunned that she instantly suffered heart-attack symptoms and ended up in the ICU. She experienced a condition called 'broken heart syndrome,' which is most common in women. Shock, fear, or extreme nervousness can temporarily impair the heart's ability to function, possibly because the surge of hormones like adrenaline overloads the blood vessels. You don't always have the power to prevent a shocking event in life, but you can let your friends know you'd prefer it if the party really wasn't a surprise!" --Ilan S. Wittstein, M.D., cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore

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"Listen to your intuition: If something feels off, get to a doctor"

"When friends ask me about heart-attack symptoms, I always stress the importance of their own intuition. Women don't often present with the crushing chest pain men do. Almost every female survivor I've treated has told me that her gut said something was very wrong before she went into cardiac arrest, even if she showed no symptoms. One woman I know felt some arm pain and body aches and had a 'funny feeling' about it, but her doctor told her the problem was probably muscular. Sure enough, she suffered, but thankfully survived, a massive heart attack. So if you feel any symptoms that nag at your intuition--discomfort that's unusual, intense, or just gives you a bad vibe--listen to it, and call 911 right away." --Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum's Heart Book

"Pack your bags--you need a vacation"
"My friend is a really high-powered executive who thought she was perfectly healthy--until her doctor discovered a coronary blockage that required a stent. She was shocked, and exclaimed to me, 'I'm too young for this!' I told her that heart disease absolutely can happen to a woman in her 40s; if you don't take time to recharge your batteries, stress hormones like cortisol may be putting you at risk. I told her she had to start leaving the office on time: Studies have found that working more than 11 hours a day can raise your odds of heart disease by 67 percent. She made a real effort to change her lifestyle, and got her health back on track." --Shyla High, M.D., cardiologist in Dallas

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