Clinical Editors: Hemalee Patel, DO, Lenard Lesser, MD, and Rocky Patel, MD
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for one in five deaths each year. Despite its prevalence, heart disease is still often thought of as just an older person’s issue. While it may be true that the risk of heart disease increases with age, and is higher among those 65 and up, it can develop at any point. The good news though is that it isn't inevitable — roughly 80% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented. Developing good habits early on and prioritizing a heart-healthy lifestyle through all stages of life can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your cardiac health in the long term. Here’s how you can protect your heart health at every age:
In your 20s
Though it’s easy to feel invincible when you’re young, your behavior and lifestyle choices in your 20s can have a significant impact on your health in the long run. Consider this time as an opportunity to build a strong foundation for your health; the earlier you begin practicing healthy habits, the easier it will be to stick with them as you get older. You can start by incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), regular physical activity can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, as well as improve circulation and strengthen your heart. The key is time and intensity. Work to a goal of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. This can be broken down into as little as 10 minute efforts. With moderate activity, your breathing quickens, but you should be able to still carry a conversation without being out of breath. You should develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
It’s also important to be mindful of your alcohol and tobacco consumption. If you’re actively smoking, it’s time to quit. Smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease and is the cause of one in four deaths from cardiovascular disease. Quitting smoking not only reduces your risk of heart disease, but it can also add 10 years on to your life expectancy. Likewise, heavy drinking has been associated with a greater risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and other health problems, so moderation is key.
One of the best things you can do during this time is to develop a relationship with a primary care provider and start going in for an annual visit. While you may not think you need regular check-ups when you’re feeling fine and healthy, primary care providers can keep you on track with routine immunizations and preventative screenings and catch potentially serious issues early on before they cause any complications. During your visit, your provider can also assess your level and type of physical activity, and make recommendations on improving your fitness and preventing cardiac disease. Your provider will treat you within the context of your personal and family health history, tailoring your care plan to your unique personal needs. Your 20s is a great time to get familiar with your family health history so that you and your primary care provider can better understand your health risks. A positive family history of heart disease or other congenital or inherited factors, for instance, may alter your screening schedule or require other preventative measures early on.
In your 30s
As your 20s come to an end, you may find yourself juggling more responsibilities. Whether you’ve taken on more at work, started a family, or begun caring for aging parents, you may be feeling more stressed than ever. As chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health, including raising your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, it’s important to ’prioritize your own well-being and self-care. Now is a good time to start practicing stress-management techniques, such as deep breathing, journaling, meditation, or yoga. It’s also important not to let healthy habits slide while juggling competing priorities. In addition to maintaining regular physical activity, focus on building a heart-healthy diet filled with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins, and prioritize your sleep. Most adults need at least 7 hours each night, according to the CDC.
Regular visits to your primary care provider continue to become increasingly important in your 30s as well. Higher stress and lower activity levels can have adverse health effects that might not be apparent as you age. Through routine visits, your provider can partner with you to suggest lifestyle changes and ensure those changes are being optimized to help you better protect your long-term heart health. For individuals giving birth, a relationship with a primary care provider is especially important during these years, as pregnancy can lead to common conditions such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia (resulting in elevated blood pressure) that are associated with a greater risk of heart disease later in life. Your primary care provider serves as your medical home-base; during pregnancy checking in at least once per trimester with your provider and after your pregnancy to help you track progress and mitigate these conditions.
In Your 40s
With your 30s behind you, you may start to notice your metabolism taking a dip. Protect your heart by prioritizing a healthy whole-food eating plan and regular exercise. Keeping these habits up is equally important in reducing your risk of diabetes, which increases significantly as you age. Paying close attention to your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels at this age can help you better understand your risk of heart disease and take preventative action. If your numbers are higher than they should be, your primary care provider can partner with you to create a personal care plan including lifestyle changes or medications.
You may also experience changes in your sexual and reproductive health in your 40s that can impact your heart. For those experiencing perimenopause or menopause, a loss of estrogen can lead to changes in blood pressure and cholesterol and increase risk of heart disease. Those experiencing perimenopausal symptoms should be sure to consult with a doctor as risk of cardiovascular disease may shift during this time, especially if medication like hormone therapy is initiated. Likewise, erectile dysfunction becomes more common with age, and can be an early signal of suboptimal heart health. If you’re experiencing erectile dysfunction, it’s important to talk to your provider, who can evaluate and address your risk factors for heart disease.
In your 50s and beyond
If you’ve let healthy habits slide over the years, now is the time to kick them into high gear. Your risk of cardiovascular disease starts to rise in your 50s, so refresh your diet and get moving if you’ve fallen into a more sedentary lifestyle over the years. Just be sure to start slow if you’re jumping back into exercise again. Likewise, if you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar already, stick to any treatment plans or medications recommended by your provider. Keep up with regular visits to your provider to review your labs and lifestyle changes to ensure your personal risk factors are being continuously monitored and mitigated.
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with key warning signs of heart attack and stroke, so you know what to do in the event of an emergency. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, and some may experience more mild symptoms than others. If you notice any changes or are concerned about your symptoms, talk to your provider.
Have more questions about your heart health or risk of heart disease? Book an appointment with one of our primary care providers to talk about what you can do to protect your heart as you age.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
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