When it comes to being proactive about preventing cardiovascular disease (and many other health maladies), it’s our daily habits that matter most.
Having a smoothie for breakfast once a month or going to the gym for the first few weeks every January won’t undo the damage of living an unhealthy lifestyle the rest of the time.
Ready to hear something encouraging? It’s never too late to start putting healthy habits in place.
If you are 50 or older, cardiologists say it’s not too late to start prioritizing heart health and putting habits in place that lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death in the U.S.
This is especially important because the risk of cardiovascular disease increases as we age. “If you have high cholesterol, LDL accumulates in blood vessels and causes plaque formation that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Norman Lepor, MD FACC FAHA FSCAI, cardiologist, Director of the National Heart Institute in Beverly Hills, Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, and Attending Cardiologist at Smidt Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.
Dr. Lepor says the buildup of plaque is kind of like the accumulation of junk in a storage unit; over time, it piles up and eventually, it becomes a problem. But establishing healthy habits can prevent this—including if you’re over 50.
Best daily habit for heart health
Not sure where to start when it comes to building healthy heart habits? Dr. Christopher Davis, MD, an interventional cardiologist and founder of Reveal Vitality, says one great place to start is with stress management.
“In a society filled with stress and anxiety, one of the most important habits I recommend to promote cardiovascular health is some type of breathwork or meditation practice to balance the autonomic nervous system,” he explains.
Davis emphasizes that experiencing prolonged amounts of high stress truly can have serious repercussions on the heart. He explains that high levels of anxiety and stress increase blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of blood clots, which can be life-threatening.
Related: 92 Ways to Stress Less This Week
Scientific studies show a clear connection between experiencing high levels of stress and premature death. Stress increases the risk of premature death by as much as 43 percent—that’s pretty major.
As Dr. Davis mentioned, breathwork and meditation are effective ways to manage stress—shown to significantly lower blood pressure. Some places to find breathwork and meditation exercises include Calm, Headspace, and The Mindfulness App.
Dr. Lepor has his own daily habit in place for managing stress: jogging.
Personally, he devotes 50 minutes a day to jogging, but science has shown that even 30 minutes of intense cardiovascular exercise (like jogging) five days a week can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The reason why jogging (and other aerobic activities) has such a powerful effect is because it literally makes the heart stronger. It gets the heart pumping, improving circulation. This lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate. Simultaneously, aerobic exercise reduces anxiety and depression. This combined effect is doubly good for the heart.
Other ways to support your heart
Finding one way to manage stress every day is a great first step in supporting your heart. Once that’s in place, you can start implementing another daily healthy habit, like exercising.
Both cardiologists emphasize that diet is also hugely important when it comes to heart health.
They recommend prioritizing foods that are minimally processed and nutrient-rich, such as following the Mediterranean diet, which numerous scientific studies have shown is beneficial for heart health. This way of eating prioritizes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, plant proteins, fish, nuts and olive oil.
In addition to eating well, Davis says that it’s important to consistently get good sleep.
“If sleep is an issue, make sure to adhere to recommended sleep hygiene guidelines like lowering the temperature of the room, and avoiding computers, or other laptop-like devices prior to bedtime as the blue light emitted from these devices can cause issues with sleep,” he says.
Lepor says that it’s also important to get your blood pressure checked regularly, which can be done at the doctor’s office or even at home.
Some people may not even realize that they have high blood pressure and are, therefore, at a higher risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. Sometimes, pharmaceuticals are necessary for lowering blood pressure and mitigating these risks.