Healthy Heart Guide

"The secret to longevity and good health is prevention. Make the lifestyle changes necessary to promote good health in the future." —Denton A. Cooley, MD

The human heart can be compared to the engine of a car—both are power units that keep bodies moving. Your heart works as a pump that pushes blood to the organs, tissues, and cells of your body. The blood pumped by the heart delivers oxygen and nutrients to every cell and removes the carbon dioxide and waste products made by those cells. But if blood flow to the heart is slowed or stopped or the heart beats irregularly, your life may be in danger. Like your car engine, how you treat your heart will determine how long and how well it will continue to work for you.

“Many people take better care of their cars than their bodies,” says Dr. Denton A. Cooley, founder, president-emeritus, and surgeon-in-chief emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute. “They are careful to change the oil, have regular tune-ups, and use the proper gasoline. But when it comes to their bodies, they fuel them with high-fat and high-salt meals, they smoke, and they don’t exercise routinely. Medical advances can’t do away with heart disease. Good health depends largely on people taking positive action.”
Heart disease is any disease that affects the heart or blood vessels. Even though there has been an effort to make people aware of causes and prevention, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in America for both men and women. In fact, heart disease kills someone every 39 seconds in the United States—that’s nearly 2,200 people a day. Heart disease is responsible for more deaths in America than cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, and accidents combined. New tests and treatment methods have reduced the number of deaths from heart disease, but they do not affect the number of people who still get heart disease.

Risk Factors and Lifestyle

Certain factors play important roles in a person’s chances of developing heart disease. These are called risk factors. Some risk factors can be controlled or changed while others cannot.
“Although you cannot control risk factors such as sex, age, and genetics, there are many lifestyle risk factors you can change to prevent or postpone heart disease,” says Dr. Cooley. “Medical studies show that eating a diet low in fat, salt, and cholesterol, not using any type of tobacco, exercising at least three times a week, maintaining your ideal weight, and decreasing your blood pressure can reduce your risk of heart disease.”


Exercise—or a lack of it—plays a key role in our health. Research has shown that we need to exercise aerobically (such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling) at least three times a week for 30 minutes to condition our hearts. Short bouts of exercise that add up to 30 minutes a day are just as good for you as a continuous 30-minute workout.

“One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to fuel our body with low-fat food and exercise regularly,” says Dr. Cooley. “Exercise burns off calories, reduces the appetite, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress levels, and raises HDL (good cholesterol) levels. It makes us look and feel better. It’s almost too simple.”


Making a few sensible changes in your diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Heart-healthy habits include limiting your salt intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day. (If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may suggest that you have even less—about 1,500 milligrams a day.)

Your diet should consist primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, lean meats, and fish. Try to decrease your level of fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol (fatty red meats, whole milk, whole milk cheeses, eggs, cream-based dishes, and rich desserts).

“You can reduce your blood cholesterol level by 5-10 percent by eating a heart-healthy diet—eating more dietary fiber and less fat and cholesterol,” says Dr. Cooley. “By eating foods high in fiber, people tend to feel full and may eat fewer high-calorie and high-fat foods.”


Drinking alcohol affects your heart. Medical research shows that a moderate amount of alcohol each day may protect against heart disease and heart attacks. Experts say that moderate intake is an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. One drink is defined as 1½ fluid ounces (fl oz) of 80-proof spirits (such as bourbon, Scotch, vodka, gin, etc.), 1 fl oz of 100-proof spirits, 4 fl oz of wine, or 12 fl oz of beer. But drinking more than a moderate amount of alcohol can cause heart-related problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, irregular heartbeats, and cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle). And the average drink has between 100 and 200 calories. Calories from alcohol often add fat to the body, which may in turn increase the risk of heart disease. If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, do so in moderation.


Stress can affect your heart. People with heart disease often say they have heart pain during emotionally stressful situations. Heart attacks are also more likely to happen during times of stress, when our hearts race and our blood pressure rises, increasing the heart’s demand for oxygen. Stress can also injure the arteries because of the extra hormones and the increased blood flow during the stress response. As the arterial walls begin to heal, they thicken, making them prone to plaque buildup, which narrows the artery. Researchers believe stress can make heart conditions worse.


Being Aware

“Most of us consider ourselves healthy, as long as we are not experiencing symptoms of illness. However, sometimes the first noticeable symptom of heart disease is a heart attack,” says Dr. Cooley. “Once you begin to notice symptoms, damage has already occurred. Thus, it is important to be aware of the risk factors for heart disease and to take the necessary steps to reduce your risk. Simply by controlling one or more of your risk factors, you can add months and possibly years to your life.”