Think you don’t need to know about cardiovascular disease since your heart’s in good working order?
You might want to reconsider that: You’re never too young or healthy to know your facts when it comes to this all-important organ. “Your heart is the metabolic engine that drives everything in your body, so you want to make sure you have the right information to take care of it,” says internist Ari Levy, MD, founder of Shift, an integrative health and wellness practice in Chicago.
Whether it’s how much to exercise, why stress relief matters, or what to eat and sip, it’s key have clarity on the latest heart-supportive strategies. Take this quiz to test—and update—your knowledge, so you can stay heart-smart for life.
Answer: Heart disease
While COVID-19 is a threat, no doubt, heart disease remains the number-one killer of women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (COVID ranks third in the top-mortality-culprits list for women, right behind cancer.) More than 300,000 women die of heart disease each year in the United States, yet many of us still think of heart attacks as a guy thing. “A lot of women and physicians underestimate the importance of heart disease prevention,” says Joyce Oen-Hsiao, MD, associate professor of cardiology at Yale University School of Medicine. One reason? Women tend to prioritize their family’s health over their own, she explains, and all too often that means they wait until they have a cardiac event before they focus on heart-healthy strategies.
It’s far better to be proactive. Talk to your doctor about cardiovascular disease screening and prevention, and make sure you’re aware of common heart attack symptoms in women, which can include discomfort in the jaw, back, neck, or stomach.
Answer: Cup of tea
Curling up with a mug of black or green tea just may keep the cardiologist away. A study in the Annals of Medicine found that drinking two cups of unsweetened tea per day has the potential to decrease cardiovascular disease risk and progression.
What’s more, tea is packed with natural, heart-friendly substances called flavonoids, which have been shown to lower blood pressure. In fact, tea is one of the main dietary sources of the heart-healthy compounds. (Lipton unsweetened black and green teas have 170 mg and 150 mg of flavonoids respectively.) Levy recommends a plain cup without added sugar: “The more natural and straight from the source, the better,” he says.
*The American Heart Associations’ relationship is limited to unsweetened Black and Green Tea.
Gaining weight in your belly rather than in your hips and butt can put you at higher risk of coronary disease. Folks with this pattern of gain often carry more visceral adipose tissue (VAT), which is a particularly dangerous type of fat that surrounds the heart and other organs, Dr. Levy explains.
Still, this doesn’t mean those who tend to gain in the hips, thighs, and butt are off the hook. “Any excess weight puts a strain on the cardiovascular systems,” says Dr. Oen-Hsiao. It can jack up your risk for high cholesterol and diabetes. If you’re concerned about this risk factor, check in with your primary care doctor or a cardiologist.
Answer: Prioritize healthy fat
While the old-school advice was to go extremely low-fat for your heart, it wasn’t actually based on good science. Recent research shows monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—found in nuts, olive oil, seeds, and fish—are good for us, says Dr. Oen-Hsiao. And the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, walnuts, and other foods can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Alas, that doesn’t mean brie and porterhouses are your heart’s best friend. Go easy on saturated fat, or “fats that would be solid at room temperature,” Dr. Oen-Hsiao advises. Found in everything from steak and cheese to coconut oil and commercially baked goods, sat fats can lead to a buildup of plaque in your blood vessels, upping your odds of having a heart attack or stroke.
Breastfeeding now may help your heart later, according to a study just published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The study examined data from more than 1 million women around the world who had given birth and found those who breastfed at some point in their lives were 17 percent less likely to die from heart disease than the moms who never nursed their babies. They were also less likely to have heart attacks or strokes.
The health benefits don’t stop there, though: Breastfeeding can also reduce a woman’s chances of developing breast and ovarian cancers.
Answer: 150 minutes a week
If only one quick walk a week would cut it! The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of strenuous exercise weekly. Cardio is so important for heart health,” says Dr. Oen-Hsiao. “Consistent cardio can help to lower blood pressure and blood sugar. It also leads to an increase in good cholesterol.”
So what counts as moderate versus strenuous exercise? Moderate includes brisk walking, gardening, dancing, playing doubles in tennis, and biking. Strenuous is anything that makes you too tired to talk while you sweat (think: hiking uphill, running, biking fast, playing singles tennis, jumping rope). Don’t worry if you have to work up to that cardio goal. Baby steps!
“Stress creates a whole set of neurochemical cascades that elevate your blood pressure and heart rate,” Dr. Levy says. And that can leave some people predisposed to having a heart attack, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA).
While feeling overwhelmed is normal, the problem is when it becomes chronic: “Stress is meant to be had in seconds, minutes, and hours—not in days, weeks, and months,” Levy notes.
If you find yourself tipping over into weeks and months of overwhelm, it’s key to find calming techniques that work for you. Maybe that’s starting a morning meditation practice using a free app like Insight Timer, making time for yoga, or relaxing each night with a soothing cup of herbal tea.
Strength training may not get as much press as cardio, but it’s critical too. A 2019 study found people who did any amount of strength training a week had a 40 to 70 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke than people who did no strength or resistance work.
Strengthening your core muscles helps reduce that unhealthy visceral fat. And adding muscle strengthening exercises (resistance bands or weights) twice a week will also help improve your circulatory health, says Dr. Oen-Hsiao. So whether you grab kettlebells, pop into a yoga flow, or just dig in your garden, doing activities that challenge your muscles is a decidedly heart-smart move.