A spread of heart healthy food on a table of white wood.

A Healthy Heart: The First Step to a Healthy Life

How to Improve Heart Health

We all know our heart plays a vital role in our health and overall functioning. When you have problems with your heart, it can lead to issues with other organs in the body.

Certain factors put a person at an increased risk of cardiac issues, especially as we age. The good news is there are several ways we can improve heart health and overall longevity. Remember, the more you know about your heart health, the easier it become to live a healthy lifestyle.

Why Is Heart Health Important?

Your heart is central to your overall health. When your heart does not function properly, damage to the lungs, kidneys, and brain can occur. In fact, multiple organs can be affected.

Poor heart health can lead to several problems:

Decreased Mobility

When the heart is not working efficiently, it may interfere with proper blood flow through the body. Oxygen levels may decrease, and muscles may not get enough blood to them. The effects of poor heart health can lead to fatigue and decreased mobility.

According to research in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One, cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, are associated with decreased mobility in older adults.

The study involved 2,725 adults with an average age of 72. Information on cardiovascular risks was collected using interviews, clinical exams, and lab tests. Of the participants, 21% had mobility limitations. The study found that the likelihood of decreased mobility increased with each cardiovascular risk factor.

Decreased mobility can lead to muscle loss and weakened bones, which both impact overall quality of life.

Risk of Dementia

Heart health is also linked to your risk of dementia. According to a report published by the National Institute on Aging, people that have better heart health at the age of 50 have a lower risk of developing dementia later in life than those with poor heart health.

Dementia causes problems with cognitive ability and affects every area of a person’s life. Determining ways to decrease your risk is helpful to stay well as you age.

Lung Problems

The heart and the lungs are directly interconnected. When the heart does not work properly, it can cause breathing problems. For example, congestive heart failure can lead to fluid in the lungs, which is called pulmonary edema.

In congestive heart failure, the heart does not pump blood efficiently through the body. When this occurs, blood can back up into the veins that carry blood to the lungs. The pressure in the vessels increases and fluid travels to the air sacs in the lungs.

Symptoms of pulmonary edema:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

Lung problems can have a direct effect on longevity. When heart problems affect other organs, it can shorten a person’s life span.

Common Types of Heart Problems

Heart conditions can vary in severity, symptoms, and causes. There’s important information on some other common heart problems.

Coronary Artery Disease

The phrase heart disease refers to different types of heart problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease.

Coronary artery disease involves a buildup of plaque on the arterial walls that supply blood to the heart. The plaque forms due to cholesterol deposits in the arteries. In time, the plaque buildup leads to a partial or total blockage of blood flow. When the blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause a heart attack.

Symptoms of coronary artery disease:

  • Chest pain
  • Light-headedness
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea

Various factors can increase your risk of coronary artery disease:

  • Having high blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol

The three risk factors above are the key risks for coronary artery disease. The CDC reports that about 47% of adults have one of these risks.

Additional risk factors can also affect a person’s chances of developing heart disease:

  • Family history
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet

Coronary artery disease can have a major impact on a person’s life. It can lead to arterial blockages that cause a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life.

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure does not mean your heart stops beating. Instead, it involves the heart not functioning efficiently. Heart failure can develop after a condition weakened or damaged the heart. For example, if someone has a heart attack, it can cause damage that leads to heart failure.

With heart failure, the chambers of the heart become stiff, which interferes with how efficiently blood is pumped through the body.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs and feet
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced exercise tolerance
  • Coughing fluid retention

Congestive heart failure can eventually lead to difficulty in managing everyday tasks. Symptoms tend to become more severe over time.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a common type of irregular heart rhythm. It occurs when there is a disturbance to the electrical signal in the heart. When atrial fibrillation occurs, the atria, which is the upper chamber of the heart, does not beat regularly. The irregular rhythm interferes with efficient blood flow.

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pressure

The risk factors for developing atrial fibrillation include high blood pressure, underlying heart diseases, and diabetes.

Atrial fibrillation can have a big impact on a person’s life. The condition can be acute or chronic. People with chronic atrial fibrillation are at an increased risk of heart failure and a stroke.

Strategies to Improve Heart Health

If you want to know how to improve heart health, there are different things you can try.

Certain factors may increase your chance of heart problems. For example, family history, genetic conditions, and age are all out of your control. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to improve your heart health.

Know Your Numbers

Blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels can all affect your heart health. All three conditions can lead to acute conditions, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Getting regular checkups and knowing your numbers can alert your doctor to problems before serious complications develop. Medication and lifestyle choices are often helpful in lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar to healthy levels that reduce your risk of heart problems.

How often to have your numbers checked may depend on your risk factors. Generally, healthy adults should consider the following:


Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your heart health. The more active you are, the more beneficial it is for your heart. But any amount of exercise is good for you.

The American Heart Association recommends getting 159 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week. Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, aerobic classes, and biking. Those that prefer to exercise vigorously should aim for 75 minutes of exercise each week. One option is to do a combination of vigorous exercise on some days and moderate on others.

Exercise provides several heart-healthy benefits:

  • Decreases blood pressure
  • Reduces the risk of diabetes
  • Increases good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Decreases bad cholesterol (LDL)
  • Helps maintain a healthy weight
  • Strengthens the heart

Regular exercise can help combat chronic heart problems, such as coronary artery disease. It may also increase your risk of survival if you have a heart attack. In the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, researchers found that people that exercised regularly survived a heart attack 20 to 25% more often than people that did not exercise.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Eating a heart-healthy diet can decrease your risk of heart problems, especially chronic problems, such as coronary artery disease.

A diet good for your heart involves eating:

  • Whole grains
  • Lean protein, such as fish and skinless chicken
  • Nuts
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits

Just as it is important to know what to eat, it is also essential to understand what foods to avoid. Certain foods that are high in unhealthy fats, such as trans fat and saturated fats, should be avoided. That includes fried foods and sweets. The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than about five percent of your calories from saturated fats.

Don’t Smoke

You probably already know smoking is bad for your lungs and is a risk factor for lung cancer and COPD. But smoking is also one of the main risk factors for heart problems.

Smoking can contribute to chronic heart problems, including coronary artery disease. Smoking is associated with heart disease for a few reasons. For example, smoking is thought to increase triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the blood.

Smoking may also contribute to heart disease, as it:

  • Reduces good cholesterol, which protects the heart
  • Damages blood vessels, causing thickening
  • Makes blood stickier and more likely to clot

Smoking also slows down how fast a person can heal. This means if you require any type of cardiac procedure, recovery may be slower.

It is never too late to quit. Quitting smoking can help prevent further damage to the lungs and heart. It also improves overall health.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, studies have shown that people that were diagnosed with coronary artery disease that quit smoking had a reduced risk of having a heart attack and death from cardiovascular disease. Although how much it lowers the risk varies, some studies show a 50% reduction.

Several strategies are available to quit smoking. There is no one method that is best. In some cases, it may take a little trial and error to find something that works for you. Methods to quit smoking include:

  • Medication: Different medications are available that help someone quit smoking by easing withdrawal side effects.
  • Nicotine patches and gum: Nicotine patches and gum can help by delivering a smaller dose of nicotine to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Behavior modification: Various forms of counseling are available that may help people that smoke learn behavior modifications. Behavior modifications can help reduce cravings and teach ways to deal with withdrawal symptoms.
  • Smoking cessation classes: Smoking cessation classes can help someone overcome smoking through education and support.

Find Ways to Manage Stress

The role of stress in heart problems is not entirely clear, but there does appear to be a link between chronic stress and heart problems.

Stress may contribute to heart conditions for a few reasons. It is thought that stress may increase inflammation in the body. Inflammation may potentially lead to heart issues, such as a heart attack.

Chronic stress may also indirectly cause poor heart health. For example, if you are stressed, you may not eat or sleep well and may skip exercise. Stress can also lead to poor choices, such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol. All these lifestyle choices can contribute to heart conditions.

It may be close to impossible to live a stress-free life. But there are things we can do to reduce chronic stress and learn to manage stress better:

  • Learn meditation: Mediation can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and help you learn to relax. Meditation classes, both in-person and online, are available. It may take several weeks to get the hang of, but it can be a great way to cope with the everyday stresses of life.
  • Do deep relaxation exercises: Deep breathing exercises are an easy way to immediately destress. Relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing and belly breathing, can help ease tension quickly.
  • Make sleep a priority: Sleeping may not wipe away your stress, but it can help you cope. Getting adequate rest can help you deal with stress more efficiently. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
  • Unplug: If you are like many people, you are often connected to your phone or computer. We search the web, post on social media, and access news 24/7. But is that good for us? Sometimes it is important to take a break from technology and unplug. Silence your phone and disconnect for a bit. Take a walk outside, play with your dog, or enjoy time with friends. A break from the hustle and bustle of the world is often relaxing.

Final Notes

There are many different types of heart problems that a person can experience, and they don’t just affect your heart. The health issues can have a ripple effect throughout other organs, so it’s extremely important to ensure you take care of yourself.

Eating well, managing stress, exercising, and quitting smoking are all excellent ways to take care of your heart, and your overall health.

If you are experiencing any symptoms of heart problems, speak to your doctor. They will be able to provide more information on how to improve heart health, and help you access the resources you need.

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