7 Simple Ways To Protect Your Heart
by JR Thorpe
Young woman in animal shelter with little puppy
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Your heart's probably going through a lot right now, what with the state of current national politics. But there are other pertinent reasons to take care of it, no matter how young you are. Unfortunately, heart disease is a very big problem for women: 25 percent of all American women will die of heart disease — so we need to know how to protect our heart health, starting as early as possible.

Symptoms of men and women's heart disease are actually quite different, and the ones that get the attention are usually the male-related ones. For instance, women's heart attacks often don't present with the stereotypical pain in the chest; they're more likely to present with symptoms like chest or neck pain, sweatiness, shortness of breath, and nausea. But since our "idea" of heart attacks is gender-specific, women risk not recognizing what's happening to them until it's too late.

There are, however, certain steps that you can take to ensure better coronary health, some of which are a bit obvious and others that are, well, a little odder. The good news is that science is devoting a lot of attention to heart disease, and increasingly acknowledging the need to divide research along gendered lines, so we're getting better at dealing with it. Right now, though, it remains a serious issue, so here's a primer of steps to take to help your heart.

Go Vegetarian Or Vegan

Vegetarianism, or a big reduction in meat intake in general, has been shown to be linked to a lower risk of heart disease, which is as good a reason as any to start going meat-free more often. A study out of Oxford in 2013 found that a vegetarian diet appears to reduce the risk of heart disease by about a third. They drew the conclusions from a huge cohort of around 20,000 people who were surveyed periodically for years; it seemed that the big reason behind the rise in risk was a different in cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which created more work for the heart.

If you're not keen on giving up meat altogether, just rationing red meat might be a good bet. Scientists from the Indiana University School Of Public Health discovered in 2014 that consuming heme iron, which is found in meat, has a serious positive relationship with coronary heart disease. They conducted a massive meta-study involving nearly 300,000 people all told. It seems that heme iron, unlike nonheme iron (which is found in plants and elsewhere), has an absorption pattern in the body that can lead to coronary heart disease. The heart health benefits for vegans are even greater, so if you have heart disease in your family, that is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself.

Watch Your Sugar & Trans Fat Intake

Diet is one of the biggest battlegrounds for heart health. Numerous studies have shown that specific substances are a bad idea for cardiovascular health, but the emphasis has shifted over the years. Once saturated fats were viewed as the biggest problem, but new science that debuted in the past few years has found that there are other substances that overshadow it: namely sugar and trans fats.

American scientists discovered last year that sugar poses more of a risk to heart health than saturated fats, though neither is altogether positive; they determined that one of the biggest problems is refined added sugars, not naturally-occurring fructose in fruits or vegetables. And the British Medical Journal published findings in 2015 that found that trans fats are bigger culprits when it comes to the fat side of things and coronary heart disease, with a much higher association with disease and mortality. A trans fat-heavy diet increases your risk of contracting coronary heart disease by 21 percent, and your risk of dying of it by 28 percent.

Get A Pet

Yes, you may need to get a dog for the sake of your health. The American Health Association published a statement in 2013 about the interesting relationship between pet ownership and cardiovascular health, and it's an intriguing one. There is a link between having a pet and having a lower risk of heart disease, but they're not sure if it's entirely cause and effect; healthier people may be more likely to get pets in general. However, they did find that pets lower stress (which, as I'll get onto in a minute, does help with heart disease), and that active pets in particular help with heart risk by provoking exercise. In other words, if you want to have a more heart-healthy life, it's better to get a dalmatian than a rabbit.

Get Your Flu Vaccine

We've known for a while that getting a flu vaccine lowers the risk of having a heart attack in the next 12 months, but we haven't really known why. The reason was revealed in 2014 by Canadian scientists. It seems that the immune processes stimulated by the flu vaccine also prompt heart-protecting mechanisms to kick-start in the body, which helps to lower the risk of developing heart disease in the following year. It's a big reason to get the vaccination (as well as, you know, lowering your risk of getting the flu), and it's also providing new possibilities for preventing heart disease using some kind of shot in the future. Anti-heart attack injections? Sign me up.

Live At A Higher Altitude

This one may actually be out of your control, but it's an interesting thing to take into consideration the next time you shift real estate, particularly if you've got a family history of heart disease. New research released this January has linked living at a higher altitude to better cardiovascular health and lower rates of heart disease, even if they had a family history of heart problems (which normally shifts things a little). We're not entirely sure why, though it may be to do with how the body processes oxygen levels, but heading for the mountains instead of the valleys could be a good idea generally as sea levels rise, so hey, let's all get alpine.

Avoid Being Sedentary

Obvious news is obvious: the less you exercise, the more risk you carry of developing heart problems. The sedentary lifestyle, according to the American Health Association in 2016, is one of the biggest risk factors for heart problems, as sitting or lying still creates pressure on the blood vessels and heart. But, annoyingly, even if you sit most of the day and run around like a maniac for the rest of it, that may not cancel out of the damage of your sedentary time entirely. To keep our hearts healthy, we should probably all be investing in treadmill desks, taking meetings while strolling around the office, and trying to stand up or move as much as possible even in our leisure time.

Try To Lower Your Stress Levels

The link between heart health and stress has been known for a very long time. New science elaborates on it a little more; a study of nearly 300 patients found that the over-activation of the amygdala, a brain region associated with stress, directly correlates with heart disease risk. The patients were all given brain scans and heart tests, and followed for up to four years to see how their health developed. Those whose amygdala activity was shown to be through the roof, denoting a high level of stress, were very likely to have some kind of cardiovascular event, like a heart attack, stroke, or diseases of the arteries. Meditate, go for long walks, practice mindfulness, quit the job that's making you wake up anxious: stress makes your heart suffer.