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How to Wreck Your Heart

By Jen Uscher
WebMD Feature

No one sets out to hurt their heart. But some habits can add up over time, taking their toll.

You can't control things like your family history, or aging. But you have more power than you may think. 

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"There’s a lot of reason to believe you can trump your family history or promote a healthier, longer life if you focus as early as possible on the risk factors you can control,” says cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Here are the top 5 habits to change, for your heart's sake:

1. Sit Too Much

You may have heard that "sitting is the new smoking." It's true: Spending a lot of time seated is bad for you. Inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who are more active, according to the surgeon general.

Lack of exercise can harm your heart in many ways. For example, it can lead you to develop high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

But it's not just about working out. It's about moving more throughout your day.

The fix: A little more movement can make a big difference. Get up from your chair more often at work. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. 

2. Ignore Heart Symptoms

Trying to convince yourself that the discomfort in your chest is just heartburn? It might be, but it could also be a warning sign that you have a heart condition or are having a heart attack.

"Don’t miss an opportunity to protect yourself," says cardiologist Mark Urman, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.

The fix: If you have any of the following symptoms, call 911 right away.  Prompt treatment could save your life.

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Discomfort in one or both arms, or in the back, shoulders, neck, or jaw
  • Unusual tiredness

3. Put Off Your Check-Up

You can delay doing a lot of things, but when you put off seeing your doctor, your heart may pay the price.

The fix: Make an appointment. A visit to the doctor will let you know if you have high blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar. Left untreated, each of these conditions can damage your heart.

Even if you don’t have a family history of heart disease, you should make an appointment to get these levels tested at least every 5 years, says Lloyd-Jones.

4. Carry a 'Spare Tire'

Being overweight puts extra strain on your ticker and increases the odds you’ll develop heart disease.

“If you store extra weight in your midsection, that in particular raises your risk,” Urman says.

The fix: Talk with your doctor about losing weight, and talk with a nutritionist about maintaining a healthy diet.

Shedding a few pounds can go a long way. Even just a 5% to 10% drop in your weight can lower your heart disease risk.

5. Light Up

If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, you have more than twice the risk of a heart attack than a person who has never smoked.

“Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke get into the bloodstream and damage the inner lining of the arteries,” says Lloyd-Jones. Bad cholesterol collects on the artery walls, boosting the risk of heart attack, he explains.

The fix: Quit. No matter how long you’ve smoked, quitting can help reverse damage to the heart and blood vessels, and can dramatically cut your risk of heart disease and heart attack. 

Reviewed on January 17, 2014

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