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6 Heart risks you can change

Lifestyle modifications can build a healthier heart and lower risks for future heart problems.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death, and there are some risk factors that are just a fact of life. We can't change our genetic makeup, race, sex or age, for example. Yet all of these things can affect whether the risk of heart disease is high or low.

Still, we're not helpless in our personal battle against heart disease. We can lower risks every day by decisions we make. What we buy at the store, what we eat for dinner, and whether we spend free time moving or sitting are just a few.

It's never too late to improve your heart health. Some steps can slow—or even reverse—damage.

Here's a look at six heart risk factors that you can control.

1. Smoking

People who smoke are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmokers. The more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the higher your risk for heart problems.

What you can do. Ask your doctor about aids that help people quit, such as nicotine replacement therapies, medicines and support groups.

Don't smoke? Remember, even breathing in someone else's smoke is hazardous to health and heart, so keep secondhand smoke away.

Number to know. Just one year after you stop smoking, your risk of heart disease will have dropped by 50 percent.

Sources: American Heart Association; National Institutes of Health

2. Inactivity

Being a couch potato is a major risk factor for heart disease. Getting regular physical activity can lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. It has other benefits, too, including helping to raise your HDL (good) cholesterol, preventing diabetes and lowering blood pressure.

What you can do. Slowly start to build activity into your day. Walking is a good way to start, or find another sport or activity you enjoy. Just make sure to get at least 10 minutes of exercise at a time.

Number to know. Shoot for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise on five or more days of the week. Also, work in two days each week of exercise that builds muscle and strength, such as weightlifting.

Sources: American College of Cardiology; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

3. High blood pressure

High blood pressure usually has no symptoms. But it can cause serious damage by forcing your heart to work harder. Over time, this can weaken the blood vessels, affect the heart's ability to pump the amount of blood the body needs, and cause the heart to thicken and stiffen.

High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart failure.

What you can do. Exercising regularly, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and following a healthy diet are all important in helping control blood pressure. One way to improve your diet is to cut back on salt. That means adding less when you cook. But it also means checking the nutrition facts label on the foods you buy—much of the sodium we consume comes from processed foods.

Number to know. You should aim to eat less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day. That's just a little more than 1/2 teaspoon of table salt.

Sources: American College of Cardiology; American Heart Association; National Institutes of Health

4. Poor cholesterol levels

Over time, unhealthy cholesterol levels can cause fatty deposits to build up inside your arteries. This causes the arteries to become stiff and narrow, reducing blood flow and putting stress on the heart.

What you can do. A healthy lifestyle can go a long way to helping you keep your cholesterol in a healthy range. Avoiding tobacco smoke, exercising regularly and choosing a low-fat diet are all important.

Numbers to know. You should have your cholesterol checked at least once every four to six years starting at age 20. You'll need more frequent screening if you already have unhealthy cholesterol levels or you have other risk factors for heart disease.

Sources: American College of Cardiology; American Heart Association

5. Excess weight or a large waistline

The more overweight you are, the higher your risk of heart disease. Scientists also know that carrying weight around your midsection is a red flag for heart disease.

What you can do. If you're overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight will help lower your risk for heart disease and other conditions.

Numbers to know. Body mass index, or BMI. It's a formula based on height and weight. If your BMI is 25 or higher, you're overweight or obese. Check your BMI here.

Waist measurement: Your risk of heart disease is higher if your waist measures more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men.

Sources: American Heart Association; National Institutes of Health

6. Diabetes

About two out of three of people with diabetes die of heart or blood vessel disease. Heart attacks in people with diabetes are more likely to be serious than in people without diabetes.

What you can do. Modest changes in diet and physical activity can make a difference. If you have diabetes, work closely with your doctors to set up and follow a diabetes management plan. This may include medicine, changes in what you eat, regular exercise and careful monitoring of your blood sugar.

Number to know. Fasting glucose—taken from a blood test after fasting—should be less than 100 mg/dL.

Sources: American College of Cardiology; National Institutes of Health

reviewed 2/7/2017

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.