Between 1950 and 2000, the death rate from heart disease in the United States plummeted nearly 70 percent, and the death rate from stroke nearly 80 percent. However, although we’re dying of heart attack and stroke less often, we’re still getting cardiovascular disease just as often. In fact, some factors that put us at risk, such as obesity and diabetes, have become more common.
We’re dying less often because of the technological and pharmacological advances of modern medicine. But is your idea of a healthy future being pulled back from the brink by bypass surgery? Needing a personal secretary to keep track of your medications? Better living through angioplasty?
We thought not. Far preferable is avoiding cardiovascular disease altogether. It can take some work to convert a high risk for heart disease into a low risk. But we’re here to tell you that it can be done! You know the mission we’re on: putting the power of stealth at the service of your health. Add up these small changes to your daily routine, and you’ve got a powerful dose of heart disease prevention — no coronary care units or intra-aortic balloon pumps required!
1. Ride your bike 20 minutes a day. You can handle that, can’t you? When German researchers had 100 men with mild chest pain, or angina, either exercise 20 minutes a day on a stationary bike or undergo an artery-clearing procedure called angioplasty, they found that a year after the angioplasty, 21 men suffered a heart attack, stroke, or other problem compared to only 6 of the bikers. Just remember that if you already have angina, you should only begin an exercise program under medical supervision.
2. Eat a piece of dark chocolate several times a week. Believe it or not, several small studies suggest dark chocolate could be good for your heart! The beneficial effects are likely due to chemicals in chocolate called flavonoids, which help arteries stay flexible. Other properties of the sweet stuff seem to make arteries less likely to clot and prevent the “bad” cholesterol, LDL, from oxidizing, making it less likely to form plaque. Dark chocolate is also rich in magnesium and fiber. But steer clear of milk chocolate, which is high in butterfat and thus tends to raise cholesterol.
3. Have a beer once a day. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that men who drank one beer a day for one month lowered their cholesterol levels, increased their blood levels of heart-healthy antioxidants, and reduced their levels of fibrinogen, a protein that contributes to blood clots. Of course, red wine might be even better. Choose either beer or wine — not both.
4. Take a B vitamin complex every morning. When Swiss researchers asked more than 200 men and women to take either a combination of three B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) or a placebo after they had surgery to open their arteries, they found that levels of homocysteine, a substance linked to an increased risk of heart disease, were 40 percent lower in those who took the vitamins. The placebo group had no change. Plus, the vitamin group had wider-open blood vessels than those taking the sugar pill.
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5. Tape-record yourself at night. If you hear yourself snoring (or if your sleeping partner has been kicking you a lot), make an appointment with your doctor. You may have sleep apnea, a condition in which your breathing stops hundreds of times throughout the night. It can lead to high blood pressure and other medical problems, and even increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
6. Go to bed an hour earlier tonight. A Harvard study of 70,000 women found that those who got less than seven hours of sleep had a slightly higher risk of heart disease. Researchers suspect lack of sleep increases stress hormones, raises blood pressure, and affects blood sugar levels. Keep your overall sleeping time to no more than nine hours, however. The same study found women sleeping nine or more hours had a slightly increased risk of heart disease.
7. Eat fish at least once a week. Have it grilled, sautéed, baked, or roasted — just have it. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2002 found that women who ate fish at least once a week were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or die of heart disease than those who ate fish only once a month. Other studies show similar benefits for men. Another major study found regular fish consumption reduced the risk of atrial fibrillation — rapid, irregular heartbeat — a major cause of sudden death.