You're probably familiar with the tried-and-true ways of lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke: quit smoking, lose weight, exercise and lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. But recent studies have uncovered some possible preventative measures that are not so commonplace.
Here are five surprising ways to keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.
Live away from the freeway
The sound of horns, sirens and noisy trucks may take a toll on your blood vessels, according to a recent study that found an association between traffic noise and risk of stroke.
The results, based on surveys of more than 51,000 people in Denmark, showed that for every 10-decibel increase in noise level, the risk of stroke increased by 14 percent. For those over 65, the risk of stroke increased 27 percent.
The exposure to loud noise may increase the body's stress hormone levels, and increase blood pressure, which might contribute to the uptick in stroke risk, the researchers said. The study was published Jan. 26 in the European Heart Journal. Previous research had also linked traffic noise with an increased risk of heart attacks.
Get just the right amount of sleep
Getting too little or too much sleep may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, a study published this month in the European Heart Journal suggested.
The results showed that those who slept six or fewer hours per night had a 48 percent higher risk of developing or dying from heart disease, and a 15 percent higher risk of developing or dying from stroke, than those who slept seven or eight hours per night.
Too little shut eye may increase blood pressure and cholesterol, and put people at risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the researchers said.
But the study showed getting too much sleep was bad for the heart as well. Those who slept nine or more hours had a 41 percent higher risk of developing and dying of heart disease than those who slept seven or eight hours.
A diet that includes blueberries may decrease the risk of developing high blood pressure, according to research published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In the study, those who ate at least one serving of blueberries per week were 10 percent less likely than those who ate no blueberries to develop high blood pressure.
The researchers analyzed the diets of 134,000 women and 47,000 men over a 14-year period. They looked to see how much of a certain compound, called anthocyanin, the subjects consumed. Anthocyanins, found in foods such as blueberries, blackcurrants, blood orange juice and eggplant are antioxidants.
The study participants who had the highest amount of anthocyanins in their diets had an 8 percent lower risk of high blood pressure than those who ate the least amount of anthocyanins.
Beware of diet soda
Consuming diet sodas may increase your risk of stroke, a recent study found. The study, which included 2,564 participants, found that those who drank diet soda every day had a 48 percent higher risk of stroke and heart attack than those who did not drink any soda at all.
The results held true even after the researchers accounted for factors that might influence heart disease and stroke risks, such as whether or not the patient had metabolic syndrome or a history of heart disease.
However, the researchers cautioned, the study only showed an association, and not a cause-effect link. The findings are preliminary and more research will be needed to back them up. The study was presented Feb. 9 the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in Los Angeles.
Eat dark chocolate
A number of studies suggest that eating dark chocolate may decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. A study presented last year at the American Academy of Neurology's 62nd annual meeting found that, of 44,000 participants, those who ate a weekly serving of chocolate were 22 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who ate no chocolate.
Another study found that those who eat a small amount of dark chocolate, about 6.7 grams a day, had lower levels of a protein in their blood that is associated with inflammation. And still other research suggests chocolate consumption may lower blood pressure, help prevent formation of artery plaques and improve blood flow.
The benefits from chocolate may come from flavonoids, compounds in chocolate thought to help protect cells against damage. They are present in higher amounts in dark chocolate. Another recent study found that dark chocolate helps to inhibit an enzyme known as ACE, which is involved in regulating blood flow. Deactivating ACE lowers blood pressure, and some blood pressure drugs specifically target the enzyme.