Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but it doesn't have to be.
There are many well-known ways to keep your heart healthy, including being physically active and quitting smoking. Maintaining a healthy weight and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels are three more keys to keeping your ticker in great shape.
But researchers are continually looking for additional ways to help people cut back on their risk factors for heart disease and keep their hearts healthy. Here are nine things to know about heart health, gleaned from the latest research.
Make time for breakfast.
Enjoying a healthy, hearty breakfast may be a simple strategy to avoid clogged arteries, a study from Spain suggests.
Middle-aged adults who regularly skipped breakfast —or just drank coffee or juice —were twice as likely to develop atherosclerosis, compared with people who typically ate a healthy morning meal, according to the findings. (Atherosclerosis, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries, can increase a person's risk of heart disease.)
Breakfast skippers had more plaque buildup in their arteries than people who usually ate a bigger meal in the morning as well as those who grabbed a lighter one.
The researchers suspect that going without breakfast is strongly tied to other unhealthy habits, such as drinking too much and smoking, which can both increase a person's risk for heart disease. In this study, people who went without breakfast were also more likely to be overweight and have poor eating habits.
Meditation may protect the heart.
Meditation may not only be good for relaxing the body and quieting the mind, but it may also play a role in reducing your risk of heart disease, a 2017 review from the American Heart Association suggests.
It's not exactly clear how the ancient practice of focusing a person's thoughts and attention may help keep heart disease at bay, but after reviewing the existing evidence, the researchers identified a range of potential benefits to the heart from meditating.
Whether paying attention to your breath or focusing on a mantra (repeated phrase), meditation may be linked to reduced levels of stress, anxiety and depression, according to the findings. Stress and other negative emotions can affect a person's risk for heart disease.
Better sleep is another payoff from meditating on a regular basis, the analysis showed. Poor sleep habits may be linked with a greater risk for heart disease.
More research is needed to determine whether meditation "has a definite role" in preventing heart disease, the researchers said.
Avoid 'yo-yo' dieting.
Yo-yo dieting can be hazardous to women's waistlines, but it may also be hard on their hearts, especially after they go through menopause, a study from 2016 reveals.
Researchers found that women ages 55 and older who had a "normal" body mass index (BMI) weight, but had weight fluctuations of more than 10 lbs. (4.5 kilograms) over the course of a decade, may have an increased risk of developing heart problems, compared with women who had smaller weight swings during the same period. (A "normal" BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9.)
Surprisingly, weight fluctuations did not pose the same dangers to the hearts of women who were overweight or obese, according to the analysis.
The researchers suggest that maintaining a stable, healthy weight is better for women's hearts than having a fluctuating normal weight caused by yo-yo dieting. It's not clear whether losing weight and then regaining it might have similar effects on younger women or men's hearts.
Keep a lid on hostility.
Hostility can have negative effects on a woman's heart, and a 2016 study sheds light on the mechanism that may be involved.
Previous studies have found that higher levels of cynical hostility in women — or a cynical attitude along with a general mistrust of other people — is linked with an increased risk for heart disease, while women filled with optimism have a lower risk for heart disease.
Researchers now suspect that something called heart rate variability, which measures the time interval between heart beats, might help explain why hostility may be harmful to women's hearts.
Women with higher levels of hostility had a lower heart rate variability, on average, than women with lower levels of hostility, according to the findings. In general, a higher heart rate variability is a good thing, the researchers said.
Hostile feelings might also hurt the heart by activating the fight-or-flight response, which boosts stress hormone levels. The study also found that women who were more hostile were more likely to have other heart risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol, compared with women who were less hostile.
Be smart about drinking.
Moderate drinking may be linked to a lower risk of some, but not all, heart conditions a large study from England suggests.
Men and women in the study who drank moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to be diagnosed with chest pain (angina), stroke, heart failure and peripheral artery disease (a reduction in blood flow to the legs and arms) than people who never drank, the researchers found.
In the study, moderate drinking was considered as no more than 14 "units" of alcohol a week. One unit of alcohol is defined as 8 grams of pure alcohol, according to the U.K.'s National Health Services. A pint of beer is equal to 3 units of alcohol, while a glass of wine is about 2 units. [Here's How Much Alcohol Is OK to Drink in 19 Countries]
But compared to moderate drinking, heavy drinking was linked to an increased risk of heart conditions, including cardiac arrest, stroke, heart failure and peripheral artery disease.
People who never drink should not take up the habit to prevent these heart problems, the researchers said. There are safer ways to improve heart health, such as exercising and quitting smoking, that don't come with the risks of alcohol, they noted.
Walking speed may help predict heart risks.
How fast a person walks could hold clues to his or her risk of dying from heart disease.
Middle-aged people who said they were slow walkers were about twice as likely to die from heart disease during a six-year period as people who said they were brisk walkers, according to an August 2016 study from the United Kingdom.
Researchers suspect that a low level of fitness could explain why slow walkers had an increased risk of dying from heart disease.
People were good at gauging how quickly they walked: Their reported walking speed was found to be strongly linked with their actual fitness level, which was measured by an exercise test.
Get a grip on your finances.
Money problems might weigh heavily on people's minds, but there's another part of the body that could also feel the strain of financial pressures: the heart.
Financial stress can take a toll on women's heart, according to a 2015 study.
Researchers found that having a history of struggling to make ends meet was linked to a twofold increase in heart attack risk in women. They also found that women in households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year may be more prone to heart attacks.
Money troubles were not the only stressors tied to heart troubles. Coping with the death of a loved one or a life-threatening illness could also increase women's chances of a heart attack, the researchers found.
Scientists don't know how stressful life events contribute to heart attack, but increased levels of inflammation and cortisol (a stress hormone) might play a part.
Vaping may be risky for the heart.
Electronic cigarettes are often billed as a better option for the lungs, but a small study in the journal JAMA Cardiology suggests they may not be so safe for the heart.
Researchers found that people who used e-cigarettes for at least one year had higher levels of the hormone adrenaline in their hearts and signs of oxidative stress in their bodies than people who never tried e-cigarettes.
Higher levels of adrenaline can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, and oxidative stress can dampen the body's ability to fend off free radicals that have been linked with heart disease. Oxidative stress and increased adrenaline can contribute to a person's risk of heart disease.
E-cigarettes contain no tobacco, but they deliver a heated mixture of nicotine and flavorings to a user's mouth and lungs. There is some evidence that the nicotine in e-cigarettes can narrow blood vessels in the heart; however, their long-term effects on the heart are not yet known.
One of the study's drawbacks is that it did not compare the heart risks in people who regularly use e-cigarettes to those who regularly smoke cigarettes.
Hit the sack for at least 7 hours.
Too little sleep may take a toll on your heart — especially if you're already at risk for heart disease, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests.
People who got less than 6 hours of sleep a night and had a condition known as metabolic syndrome were about twice as likely to die of heart disease or stroke during the 17-year study period, compared with people without metabolic syndrome who snoozed for the same amount of time, the researchers found. Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms ― including high BMI and elevated cholesterol ― that raise a person's risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Getting enough sleep can be an important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle: The risk of death was lower in people with metabolic syndrome who got more than 6 hours of shut-eye each night, according to the researchers.
Men and women with at least three of the following five risk factors — high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol, a high body mass index (BMI) and high blood sugar — meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.