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Heart Health Guide

Contributors John F. Keaney Jr., MD; Marc Sabatine, MD, MPH; Romit Bhattacharya, MD; Akshay Suvas Desai, MD, MPH; Krishna G. Aragam, MD; Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH; Lola Ojutalayo, MD
8 minute read
Couple cooking a heart-healthy meal in the kitchen

The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body, beating 24 hours a da­y, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. According to the American Heart Association, the average heart beats 100,000 times a day, sending around 2,000 gallons of blood through the body. It does all this work automatically, silently, and in the background.

The heart may be strong and powerful, but like any part of the body, things can sometimes go wrong. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. Genetics and factors beyond our control can play a role, but environmental and lifestyle factors are also important. John F. Keaney Jr., MD, director of the cardiology clinical service at Mass General Brigham, and a cardiologist who treats patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explains: “Attention to lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can go a long way to delaying or preventing the onset of heart disease, even for those individuals with a family history of this condition.”

Dr. Keaney and other Mass General Brigham experts discuss how to keep the heart healthy through lifestyle choices and share nutrition, exercise, and sleep tips.

Nutrition and heart health

Coronary artery disease is one of the most common heart conditions, affecting 20 million Americans, according to the American College of Cardiology. It happens when plaque, made up of cholesterol and other substances, builds up in the coronary arteries. This buildup can cause heart attacks. The good news is that healthy lifestyle habits can help ward off coronary artery disease.

“This is a preventable disease,” says Dr. Marc Sabatine, MD, MPH, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist. “It’s incumbent on all of us to take action early to help prevent this disease from developing.”

Cholesterol and heart disease

Cholesterol plays an important role in the body, helping to send chemical signals and move molecules in the blood stream. Our liver produces cholesterol using building blocks from our diet. Too much, however, can contribute to clogging the arteries.

“Most of us just have way more of it than we need. When we as humans are exposed to something at an abnormal level, then it can hurt us,” explains cardiologist Romit Bhattacharya, MD.

The foods we eat affect our cholesterol levels. “What ends up happening in an unhealthy diet is that you ingest a lot of fat, cholesterol, and sugar,” Dr. Bhattacharya says. “Not only are you ingesting the building blocks for cholesterol, but the sugar and high insulin levels (particularly if you have insulin resistance or diabetes) turns up the speed and the amount of cholesterol you produce.”

Foods can help lower cholesterol levels

How to reduce your cholesterol levels

To reduce cholesterol levels:

  • Consume foods that help lower cholesterol, including healthier oils (think olive oil instead of butter), low-fat dairy, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

  • Avoid the worst foods for high cholesterol. These include red meat, full-fat dairy, baked goods and sweets, and fried food.

  • Balance your plate. One-quarter should be lean protein (plant-based, fish, or skinless poultry), half with non-starchy vegetables, and the rest whole grains and healthy fats.

  • User smaller plates to limit your portions.

  • Listen to your body and don’t overeat or snack mindlessly.
  • Drink plenty of water. It’s especially important for athletes and other active adults to stay hydrated, since they lose water through sweating.

Exercise to prevent heart disease

Regular movement and exercise are another tool to prevent heart disease. Consistent exercise helps improve your heart’s function over time, allowing it to use oxygen more efficiently. Even if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition, exercise can help you recover and strengthen your heart.

You don’t have to run a marathon to get these benefits. “There is sometimes a perception that exercise needs to be done at a gym at very high intensity,” says Mass General Brigham cardiologist Akshay Suvas Desai, MD, MPH. “But even a modest walking program can have an important cardiovascular benefit — as long as it’s done regularly and for adequate duration, about 20 to 30 minutes on most days.”

Regular strength training can help lower blood pressure

Benefits of exercise for heart health

The benefits of exercise include:

  • Lessening inflammation in blood vessels and throughout the body

  • Lowering cholesterol

  • Reducing blood pressure

  • Losing or maintaining body weight

  • Combating stress, depression, and anxiety

Other lifestyle tips to help reduce risk of heart disease

Beyond diet and exercise, there are other health and lifestyle factors that can affect the risk of heart disease. Here’s what you can do to help reduce your risk of heart problems:

Limit alcohol use.

You may have heard that red wine has compounds that may be good for your heart. This was based on earlier research showing that moderate drinkers had a lower risk of heart disease.

Is red wine good for your heart? Research from Krishna G. Aragam, MD, MS, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist, and colleagues shows that any level of drinking actually increases heart disease risk.

“Alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health; rather, reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals,” Dr. Aragam explains. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the occasional glass of wine; just partake with moderation.

Quit smoking.

Avoid tobacco entirely. Dr. Keaney notes, “Smoking is one of the strongest behaviors that adversely impacts cardiovascular health, and it is entirely avoidable. Vaping and e-cigarettes also should not be thought of as healthier alternatives, as evidence suggests they have similar damaging effects as smoking on blood vessels.” 

Getting adequate sleep helps lower the risk of heart disease

Get adequate sleep.

Getting enough sleep is important not just for everyday functioning, but also for heart health. Research has shown that adults who get less than the recommended amount of 7 hours a night have a higher risk of high blood pressure or hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Research from Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and chief community health and equity officer at Mass General Brigham, shows that sleep and heart health in children are also linked. “We’ve found that shorter sleep duration and lower sleep quality in children and adolescents are associated with higher risk of obesity and heart disease. These are substantial effects that can impact children’s health for years to come,” Dr. Taveras says.

To sleep better, try the following:

  • Set a consistent bedtime routine for both kids and adults.

  • Create a sleep-friendly environment by keeping the room dark and cool.

  • Don’t use electronics in bed, and silence notifications.

  • Avoid heavy meals before bedtime.

  • Limit caffeine use in the afternoon and evening. 
The earlier you come in to see a cardiologist, the better your heart health will be. Early treatment for your symptoms prevents the heart muscle and heart tissue from becoming irreversibly damaged.

Lola Ojutalayo, MD

Cardiologist

Mass General Brigham

Keep your heart health on track.

Self-care has become a hot topic in our culture today, but it can go well beyond face masks and bubble baths. By maintaining your physical and emotional health, you can help lower the risk of heart disease.

To be proactive about your heart health:

“The earlier you come in to see a cardiologist, the better your heart health will be. Early treatment for your symptoms prevents the heart muscle and heart tissue from becoming irreversibly damaged,” says cardiologist Lola Ojutalayo, MD.

  • Be aware of your family health history. Let your providers know if you have a family history of any heart disease or other chronic diseases.

  • Manage any chronic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease, which can affect heart health. 
John F. Keaney Jr, MD

Contributor

Director, Cardiology Clinical Service
Marc Sabatine, MD, MPH

Contributor

Cardiologist
Romit Bhattacharya, MD

Contributor

Cardiologist
Akshay Suvas Desai, MD, MPH

Contributor

Krishna G. Aragam, MD

Contributor

Cardiologist
Lola Ojutalayo, MD

Contributor

Cardiologist