#3: Find your purpose. People who have a high sense of purpose may have lower risk of heart disease or stroke, according Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt researchers. Purpose, meaning a life that has a sense of meaning and a feeling that life is worth living, is associated with a 19 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, or need for heart surgery.
“‘Who am I, and why am I here?’ is the seed of change,” says Travis Robinson, a sustainably minded entrepreneur and contributing author to Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self. “The ancient yoga texts and enlightened teachers for millennia have said this inquiry is one of the first steps in discovering our dharma, or our duty or purpose in life. This question can help us apply our knowledge, understanding, and gifts to serve something greater than ourselves.” (Not sure where to start? Try the Wanderlust 14-Day Self-Discovery Challenge.)
#4: Go semi-vegetarian. There are plenty of benefits to going vegetarian, but if you really can’t give up the meat cold turkey, eating less meat can have an impact on your heart, according to research presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle meeting. Those who ate 70 percent of their food from plant sources had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who ate more meat (only 45 percent plant-based diet).
“A pro-vegetarian diet doesn’t make absolute recommendations about specific nutrients. It focuses on increasing the proportion of plant-based foods relative to animal-based foods, which results in an improved nutritionally balanced diet,” said lead author Camille Lassale, PhD, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.
#5: Adopt a Mediterranean diet. The diet typical for people in countries around the Mediterranean has been shown to reverse metabolic syndrome and drastically reduce the risk for diabetes. Now add heart-disease prevention to this list of benefits. Greek researchers found that adopting a Mediterranean diet can reduce heart disease risk by 47 percent.
This research is confirmed by a quick study of the Greek island of Ikaria, nicknamed “the Island where people forget to die. “The people of Ikaria had 20 percent less cancer and half the rate off cardiovascular disease of Americans,” says Diane Kochalis, author of Ikaria. “Not only that, but if and when they did get sick from either cancer or heart disease, it was often 8 to 10 years later in life than Americans did.” Kochalis points to healthy foods like coffee, tarama, and potassium-rich potatoes.
#6: Eat more omega-3 fatty acids. For those with hearts that are already damaged from a previous heart attack, taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements may help protect against further health declines, according to research published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance. The researchers found that taking prescription omega-3 capsules for six months had greater improvements in heart function and less fibrosis (heart scarring in healthy areas, due to a need to compensate for damaged areas) than those who took a placebo.
Fish oil may also improve hypertension, according to Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, author of The Supplement Handbook. “A review of 70 randomized trials found that the active ingredients in marine omega-3s (EPA and DHA) could reduce blood pressure by an average of 1.5 mm HG systolic and 1 mm Hg diastolic,” he said. “These effects may be as powerful overall as reducing sodium or alcohol intake or increasing exercise.”
#7: Get more vitamin D. Vitamin D may be essential for healthy hearts, especially as you age. Researchers from Loyola University found an association between vitamin D deficiency and not only heart disease, but also other chronic diseases associated with aging, including cognitive decline, depression, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cancer. While your body can produce vitamin D on it’s own through sun exposure, this isn’t the healthiest way to boost your vitamin D. Find out what foods you need to raise your vitamin D—without pills and without sun risk.
#8: Ditch energy drinks. Energy drinks have been shown to raise resting blood pressure, according to Mayo Clinic researchers, which could increase the risk for a heart attack. Those who typically drank less caffeine (less than 160 milligrams of caffeine per day, or the equivalent found in one cup of coffee) were affected the most by this blood pressure spike. (Check out these other energy drink red flags.)
#9: Eat cheese. You know how French women, despite a diet high in bread and wine, don’t get fat? They also don’t get heart disease all that frequently. Paradoxically, the food that protects against heart disease may be a notoriously fatty one: cheese. Danish researchers found that people who ate cheese had higher fecal levels of butyrate, a compound produced by gut bacteria. These people also had lower cholesterol. The researchers believe that these gut bacteria mediated the relationship between cheese and lower cholesterol.
Of course, if that cheese is slapped on top of a burger or smothers fries loaded with trans fat, you’re probably not going to see these health benefits.
#10: Eat chocolate. First cheese, then chocolate—healthy eating just got a lot more tasty. According to research published in the journal Heart, eating up to 100 grams of chocolate daily was linked to an 11 percent decrease in heart disease and stroke risk. Plus, those who ate chocolate had a 25 percent lower risk of death. Average daily chocolate consumption was 7 grams.
While the researchers said that these benefits may extend to milk chocolate, we’re not totally convinced. Those chocolates that come in heart-shaped boxes are loaded with sugar, which is just going to hurt your heart. Make sure you pick the right chocolate by avoiding these chocolate-eating mistakes.
#11: Be grateful. Strengthen your heart with love. Sounds a little cheesy, but according to research from the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice, it’s the truth. “We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said lead author Paul J. Mills, PhD, professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California–San Diego. Try these simple exercises to practice your gratitude.
#12: Ditch sugary drinks. Giving up sugary drinks is often the first step in weight loss and definitely a smart move to lower your diabetes risk, plus, giving up this obvious source of added sugar can also help your heart. Researchers at the University of California–Davis found that drinking beverages sweetend with high-fructose corn syrup for two weeks increased heart disease risk indicators (lipoproteins, triglycerides, and uric acid) in otherwise healthy young adults. Additionally, the more they drank (either 10, 17.5, or 25 percent of their total daily calorie requirements), the more the risk increased. If you’re having a hard time ditching soda cold turkey, try these naturally flavored waters orkombucha, a naturally fizzy drink that’s also great for your gut.
#13: Increase your folic acid. While we’re all for lowering your blood pressure naturally, hypertension medication can be lifesaving, especially if you add folic acid supplements, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation. Compared with individuals who only took blood pressure meds, those who also took folic acid had 21 percent lower odds of having a stroke. Talk to your doctor about whether you should consider folic acid supplementation.
#14: Get fresh air (that’s actually fresh!). Pollution doesn’t just affect your breathing or allergies; it can also hurt your heart. Research from the NYU Langone Medical Center found that people who are exposed to higher levels of fine particulate matter (produced by combustion engines and burning wood) were 24 percent more likely to have narrowed carotid arteries, which can lead to stroke. Since pollution can worsen during the summer, check your local air pollution report before you spend time outside.
Also, consider planting a tree in your yard to help protect your life from air pollution.
#15: Improve your outlook. Heart disease, stress, and depression are a triple threat against your life, according to research published in Circulation. Of people who had already had heart disease, the 6 percent who had high stress and depressive symptoms were 48 percent more likely to have a heart attack or die within a two-and-a-half-year followup.
One way to deal with all three: Exercise! Exercise helps improve stress, depression, and heart disease. If you already have a heart condition, consult with your doctor before you start working out, and consult these rules for exercising with heart disease.