How To Protect Your Heart Health In Your 20s & 30s

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Unless it runs in your family, heart health is probably not high on your list of things to worry about right now. But rates of heart disease are increasing among young people — particularly younger Black women. Protecting your heart health in your 20s and 30s, experts say, is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease later.

"We see many people diagnosed with heart attacks, chronic heart disease, and exhibiting the risk factors for heart disease in the future as early as their 20s," says heart failure cardiologist Dr. Shaline Rao, MD, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health. "The 20s and 30s are a great time to set up good routines, set up a relationship with a primary care doctor, and start heart healthy living to maximize heart health into our later life decades."

According to a 2019 study published in the journal Circulation, Black women as young as their 30s and 40s are more likely than young men to experience acute myocardial infarctions (AKA heart attacks). Significantly, the study also found that women of any race were less likely than white men to receive proper cardiovascular care. This treatment disparity in heart health contributes to myths about who needs to protect themselves from heart disease.

"Most people think they can eat and drink whatever they want in their 20s and 30s without any repercussions later on in life," says Manhattan Cardiology DO and cardiologist Dr. Roshini Malaney. The truth is, it's never too early to start caring for your cardiovascular system. Here are some steps you can take in your 20s and 30s to protect your heart health — for now and for later.

1. Advocate For Yourself

A 2018 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that thanks to sexism in doctor training, women are more likely to die after being treated by male doctors for cardiovascular care. Being an unrelenting advocate for yourself when you're in need of stronger heart health care is of utmost importance. That can mean saying you have no problem going to another physician if your current one isn't willing to help you or is dismissing your symptoms. It can also involve coming in with your own research to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about and would like to learn even more with your doctor.

2. Learn Your Family's History

Different people need to emphasize different things when caring for their heart health. For example, your resting heart rate might be right on target, but you might have a family history of high cholesterol. It's helpful to know your family's history of heart disease, which includes info about blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke.

"If you have a father with heart disease before age 55 or a mother with onset of heart disease before age 65, you may be at higher risk yourself," Dr. Rao tells Bustle. According to the American Heart Association, you don't need to trace back further than your grandparents. If you don't have access to a lot of that information, try to get what you can.

3. Prioritize Self-Care

It might seem like self-care is more for your emotional well-being than your physical health, but the two are intimately connected. Doing what you can to prevent burnout and make sure you're managing your stress is important for your heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Reducing stress can help send signals to your body that is is safe, which allows your nervous system to calm down and work more efficiently at resting state.

An annoying work week won't ruin your heart health, but it does mean that you might want to try to identify and manage the most stressful parts of your daily life.

4. If You Can, Go For Walks

Generally speaking, any kind of physical activity, from Crossfit to walking your dog to doing the dishes, can help improve your heart health in the long run. But you don't have to pump iron at the gym to see these benefits. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, pushing your cart around the grocery store, gardening, dancing, and sports are all great ways to improve your long-term heart health by increasing your heart and lungs' functionality. "Exercise for 30 minutes daily or even in three, 10-minute intervals to improve your cardiovascular fitness," Dr. Rao recommends. If you can't get to it every day, Dr. Rao says three or four times a week can help you maintain your heart health.

5. Quit Smoking

"It’s common to hear someone say “I’ll quit smoking/vaping in my 40s when it matters, it won’t hurt me now," Dr. Rao tells Bustle. But risks in your 20s and 30s can leave you with earlier onset heart disease and irreversible damageSmoking cigarettes (yes, this includes e-cigs) greatly increases your risk of developing heart disease. Penn Medicine reports that people who smoke at these ages are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than those who don't. Even if you're smoking pot, not nicotine, Harvard Medical School cautions that the long-term death rate among heart attack survivors may well be higher for people who regularly hit the bowl than it is for people without a history of heart conditions.

6. Try To Have Regular Check-Ups

Going for your annual check-up might seem only tangential to your heart health, but getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly is actually a great way to prevent heart disease. Learning if your blood pressure or heart rate put you at increased risk of heart health problems can help your healthcare provider develop a plan to get your heart health back to business. Even if you don't have insurance, there are health care clinics that can help you get your physicals for free or at reduced cost.

7. Be Aware of Your Birth Control Choices

Even though they're a great birth control option, oral contraceptives can raise your blood pressure by up to 8 mm Hg systolic and 6 mm Hg diastolic. This might not be too much of an issue for you, but if you have a family history of heart disease or are already have high blood pressure, you might want to consider other birth control options. The American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists says that the Depo-Provera shot is not shown to raise blood pressure. The progestin-only pill, the patch, and the copper IUD are other options that are considered safe for people with family histories of heart disease.

"The truth is that every we do in our younger years has an impact on our heart health later," Dr. Malaney tells Bustle. Even if you're in your 20s or 30s, it's never too early to start thinking about your heart health. Integrating things like self-care and physical activity into your everyday life won't just help your future heart health, though — it can improve your well-being now, too.

Studies Referenced:

Greenwood, B.N. (2018) Patient–physician gender concordance and increased mortality among female heart attack patients. PNAS, https://www.pnas.org/content/115/34/8569.

Arora, S. (2018) Twenty year trends and sex differences in young adults hospitalized with acute myocardial infarction. Circulation, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.037137.

Experts:

Dr. Shaline Rao, MD, heart failure cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health.

Dr. Roshini Malaney, DO, cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology.