Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in this country. One in three women will develop it in her lifetime. Scary statistics, to be sure. But because many of the factors leading to heart disease can be controlled or monitored, you can take steps to avoid becoming part of those statistics. You’ve probably heard the warnings against smoking, high cholesterol levels and couch-potato syndrome—all factors that put you at high risk for heart disease. Even if you’re smoke-free, active and eating a low-fat diet, there are still some things you need to watch out for. Here are tips based on the latest medical research that can get you on the winning side of the heart health numbers.
1. Tickle your funny bone.
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have discovered that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels, which can reduce the risk of heart disease. Study participants who were shown a funny film had a dramatic increase in blood flow and decrease in blood pressure compared to those who were shown a sad film. Laughing 15 minutes a day may improve vascular health, says study leader Michael Miller, M.D. So giggle away!
2. Try meditation.
People who meditate regularly were shown to have lower blood pressure than non-meditators in a Medical College of Georgia study. Like laughter, deep relaxation such as meditation keeps blood vessels open and blood pressure low. Meditation can help people who already have heart disease by decreasing stress levels that could otherwise trigger heart attacks.
3. Get the latest tests at your doctor’s office.
The low-dose coronary CT angiogram, a new test developed at Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, takes high-resolution, 3-D images of the moving heart and its large vessels. This non-invasive diagnostic test is used to determine if deposits have built up in the arteries that supply blood directly to the heart and can help doctors identify the early stages of heart disease in patients who have no or few symptoms.
4. Don’t ignore unusual symptoms.
Fatigue, shortness of breath, indigestion, nausea and unexplained pain in the back, chest or arms may be early warning signs of heart disease. Get a check-up right away if you experience anything out of the ordinary, especially if you are over 50.
5. Tone down your arguments.
Research by University of Utah psychologist Tim Smith, Ph.D., showed that women who made many hostile comments during disagreements with their husbands were more likely to develop hardened arteries, a precursor to heart disease. Angry exchanges trigger a stress response that keeps blood pressure elevated even after the fight ends. This may damage blood vessels in a process that leads to deposits in the arteries. But women who bottled up their feelings and didn’t express them in arguments also experienced serious health effects. For heart health, it’s important to improve marital communication and learn to interact in a gentler, friendlier way when discussing hot topics.
6. Take the salt shaker off the table.
The medical community has found a direct link between excess salt in the diet and high blood pressure, though exactly how this happens is debated. Recent studies done by a Harvard Medical School team led by Nancy Cook, Sc.D., found reducing sodium intake by 25 to 35 percent could cut the risk of heart disease by as much as 25 percent. Limit your daily sodium intake to between 1,500 and 2,400 milligrams—half of what most Americans consume. Don’t forget that salt is used in almost all packaged, processed and restaurant food. When you’re dining out, order menu items unsalted. At home use herbs and spices to season your food.
7. Get treated for depression.
Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., director of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research conducted a 30-year study to identify the toll psychological stress takes on the immune system. It turns out depression can awaken dormant viruses, leading to inflammation that is linked to the onset of cardiovascular disease. With the mind and body so closely connected, uplifting the spirit often means better overall health.
8. Listen to slow beats and harp music.
When Abraham Kocheril, M.D., of the Carle Heart Center in Illinois, had a medical resident play harp music for his cardiac patients, he was amazed to see their heart rates slowed significantly. Researchers have also found that listeners tend to synchronize their breathing, which influences heart rate, with the tempo of the music they hear. For heart-happy hits, choose Mozart over Metallica.
9. Indulge your chocolate craving!
In her book Heal Your Heart with Wine and Chocolate, health journalist Debora Yost writes, “Women who drink a glass of red wine a day and eat an ounce of dark chocolate can help reduce their risk of heart disease by 54 percent.” That’s because the antioxidants in red grapes and flavonoids in cocoa help decrease build-up in arteries. Drinking grape juice or pomegranate juice offers similar benefits. So cheers to your heart!