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5 Ways to cut your heart disease risk — right now

Despite our efforts, heart disease remains a big killer to Americans. In the past three decades, death from cardiovascular events has been halved, but it’s still responsible for many deaths.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 4 Americans who die each year will do so because of heart disease. Each year, it kills about 610,000 people in the U.S. alone.

Knowing that much of the disease can be prevented, a team of researchers set out to identify the risk factors that should be prioritized to prevent the disease — something we can do to lower mortality rates. They looked at data from about 533,000 people from 45 to 79 years old. The data was collected in 2009 and 2010.

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The risk factors they looked at were:

  • Hypertension
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity

What raises our heart disease risk?

Dr. Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist from Emory University who led the study, says that eliminating those five risk factors could reduce cardiovascular deaths among U.S. women by about half. Among women, hypertension was the most important risk factor because it was responsible for 38 percent of cardiovascular deaths. Current smoking was responsible for about 17 percent. Diabetes was responsible for about 13 percent of cardiovascular deaths among U.S. women.

The researchers looked at the fraction of cardiovascular deaths that could have been prevented between 2009 and 2010 under two scenarios: with all risk factors eliminated; and, to be more realistic, with risk factors reduced to the best achievable levels.

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What we can do now

Patel says the results of her assessment confirmed prior findings on the importance of healthy behaviors and controlling known heart disease risk factors to reduce the chance of dying from cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.

“Women should consult their physicians regarding what they should focus on, given their lifestyle and personal medical history,” she says.

Let’s look at a few ways that may help you start — today — to lower your own risk for heart disease. If you have one of these risk factors, it’s a good idea to talk to your doc ASAP to find out what you can do to lower your risk even further.

1. Risk factor: Hypertension/high blood pressure

Exercise is known to lower blood pressure — get moving if you’re not already! “Since no amount of exercise is going to make up for a poor diet, that should come first. But as much as you can, try to move, stay on your feet, and get little bits of activity wherever you can,” says Dr. Tanvir Hussain, a cardiologist and cardiac surgery intensivist at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. Check out the DASH diet, which is known for helping people to lower their blood pressure.

Right now: Try adding foods to your diet that lower blood pressure and taking a few out (or having in moderation) ones that keep it high. Check sodium levels on nutritional labels and stop adding salt to your meals.

2. Risk factor: Smoking

Instead of trying to quit cold turkey, explore various ways to help you quit the habit.

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Right now: Cut down your daily cigarette intake. Even if you can’t cut down the number of smokes you have, perhaps only smoking a quarter or half a cigarette can help.

3. Risk factor: Diabetes

Eating well and exercising are the main ways to prevent diabetes. The CDC found that losing just 5 to 7 percent of body weight and exercising 30 minutes a day, five times a week can help.

Right now: Switch to whole grains. It’s as easy as choosing a different type of bread or pasta when you go grocery shopping. The Mayo Clinic says — along with adding more fiber to your diet — that may help prevent diabetes.

4. Risk factor: High cholesterol

Testing your cholesterol can be done via a blood test. “First things first, get your cholesterol checked,” says Hussain. “You’ll never know if you are someone with unusually high cholesterol requiring medication if you don’t check.”

Right now: Schedule a blood test with your doctor — know your numbers!

5. Risk factor: Obesity

Losing weight — however you do it — can be helpful if you need to lose weight. Hussain says to change the types of fat in your diet, something that can also cut cholesterol.

“Cutting down on fat intake is hotly debated these days, so the next best thing you can do is switch to healthier fats,” he says. Hussain says to look for mono- and polyunsaturated fats — the good ones — found in avocado, nuts and nut butters as well as use cooking oil with a higher ratio of unsaturated fats compared to saturated fat.

Right now: Check your body mass index to see if you’re in the normal range. If you’re overweight or obese, start a diet and exercise plan.

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“For people looking to reduce their heart disease risk, it is important to think about healthy behaviors early in life — such as never smoking or quitting smoking,” Patel adds. “Our study suggests that avoiding the risk factors to begin with is the best way to reduce chance of death from these causes.”

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