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8 heart health tips you probably haven’t heard before

What do your dentist, friends and earplugs have in common? They can all help prevent heart disease. Here’s what the science shows.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

By now you’ve likely heard the usual advice for safeguarding your heart health. (Think: Get your heart going with regular cardio exercise. Eat a diet rich in fruits, veggies and healthy fats. Steer clear of cigarettes.) But if you’re already on track with those healthy habits, or you’re just looking for more ways to protect your heart, here are eight other little-known ways to keep your ticker strong.


Get enough sleep

“Research shows that people who sleep less than seven hours a night have higher rates of heart disease,” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D. She’s the medical director of Atria NYC and a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. There are a handful of reasons sleep is so important to your heart health.

For starters, while you snooze, your blood pressure naturally goes down. So if you skimp on sleep, that may mean more time that your blood pressure stays higher. And that puts more strain on your heart.

Lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain. That’s because it affects brain hormones that play a role in hunger. And it can make it harder for your body to balance your blood sugar. That raises your risk of type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease.1

Do you already get at least seven hours of sleep a night but still feel tired the next day? Dr. Goldberg suggests asking your doctor about getting screened for sleep apnea. It’s a condition in which your breathing starts and stops repeatedly during sleep. About 20 percent of older adults have sleep apnea, which has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease.1, 2


Turn down the volume

It might sound hard to believe, but loud noises have been linked to heart disease. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, for example, found that noise from road traffic increases a person’s risk of heart disease by 8 percent for every 10 decibels of noise.3 Heavy traffic usually clocks in about 80 to 90 decibels. Anything above 85 is considered harmful to hearing.4

“If you’re constantly exposed to loud noise, it can impact your sleep and increase your stress levels, both of which can harm your heart,” says Dr. Goldberg. If you can’t avoid loud noises, wear hearing protection, such as foam earplugs.


Make regular dates with your dentist

You might think your mouth and heart don’t have much to do with each other, but research shows otherwise. A recent study found that people with gum disease are at a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.5

“One theory is that the chronic inflammation caused by gum disease promotes inflammation in blood vessels,” explains Dr. Goldberg. And it’s a risk factor many of us share, as 70 percent of older adults have gum disease.6 To help prevent or reverse gum disease, be sure to brush and floss your teeth daily. And see your dentist at least once a year.


Stay in contact with friends

Loneliness is linked with a 27 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, according to findings in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.7 “We know that people who feel lonely or socially isolated experience more stress and anxiety. And they aren’t as likely to lead a healthy lifestyle that’s important for heart health,” says Dr. Goldberg. Try to connect with a friend or close family member at least once a week. If you can’t see them in person, call, text or video chat instead — it all counts and helps combat loneliness.


Get your flu shot

Research suggests that having the flu or pneumonia may hike your heart risks. One study looked at people who had been hospitalized for heart attacks. They were about six times more likely to have had their heart attack within a week of getting the flu, compared with the year before or the year after.8

“The flu causes inflammation throughout your body, including your blood vessels,” says Dr. Goldberg. Similar research links pneumonia with inflammation in the body and a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke.9 To protect yourself, make sure you get an annual flu shot. And stay up to date on your pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia.


Eat within a 12-hour window

If you eat all your calories between 7 AM and 7 PM, for example, or between 8 AM and 8 PM, you’ll see heart-healthy benefits, says Dr. Goldberg. This eating pattern is often called intermittent fasting. It’s been shown to help people lose weight and improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.10 While it can benefit anyone, it seems to be most helpful for people who are overweight or obese, says Dr. Goldberg.


Strength-train too

Yes, brisk walking and other cardiovascular exercise is good for your ticker. But you’ll get even better results if you throw in some strength-training moves like lunges, squats and wall pushups a couple of days a week. One study found that weight training for just under an hour per week reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease events by 40 to 70 percent.11 The researchers suggest that it helps by lowering body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight.


Take some deep breaths

Mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing exercises may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s according to findings in the Journal of the American Heart Association.12 “Mindfulness lowers levels of stress hormones, which can raise blood pressure and inflammation in the body and are linked to heart disease,” says Dr. Goldberg.

 

1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How does sleep affect your heart health? January 4, 2021. Accessed June 13, 2022.

2American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Risk of death is higher in older adults with sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness. April 2011. Accessed June 13, 2022.

3Van Kempen E, Casas M, Pershagen G, et al. WHO environmental noise guidelines for the European region: a systematic review on environmental noise and cardiovascular and metabolic effects: a summary. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. February 10, 2018; 15(2): 379.

4University of Michigan Health. Harmful noise levels. December 2, 2020. Accessed June 13, 2022.

5Van Dyke TE, Kholy KE, Ishai A, et al. Inflammation of the periodontium associates with risk of future cardiovascular events. Journal of Periodontology. March 2021; 92(3): 348-358.

6Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Periodontal disease. July 10, 2013. Accessed June 13, 2022.

7Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al. Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 2018; 25(3).

8Kwong JC, Schwartz KL, Campitelli MA, et al. Acute myocardial infarction after laboratory-confirmed influenza infection. The New England Journal of Medicine. January 25, 2018; 378: 345-353.

9Cowan LT, Lutsey PL, Pankow JS, et al. Inpatient and outpatient infection as a trigger of cardiovascular disease: the ARIC study. Journal of the American Heart Association. November 20, 2018; 7(22): e009683.

10Dong TA, Sandesara PB, Dhindsa DS, et al. Intermittent fasting: a heart healthy dietary pattern? The American Journal of Medicine. April 21, 2020; 133(8): 901-907.

11Liu Y, Lee D, Li Y, et al. Associations of resistance exercise with cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. March 2019; 51(3): 499-508.

12Levine GN, Lange RA, Bairey-Merz CN, et al. Meditation and cardiovascular risk reduction. Journal of the American Heart Association. September 2017; 6(10): e002218.

 

 

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