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6 heart healthy steps from The Doctors

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 1:06 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:48 p.m. CST

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Doctors for USA WEEKEND

That flu vaccine you got at the start of the season — a recent study found it may also lower your risk of heart failure, stroke or other serious cardiovascular events.

That daily cup of coffee you can't function without — it could help your small blood vessels work better, suggests a small, preliminary study.

And that fear of needles you have — you might want to get over it: A simple blood test may one day predict a heart attack, according to emerging research out of California.

Every day, scientists work to answer questions about heart disease and discover better ways to protect your health. But for all their progress, heart disease ranks as the No. 1 health threat in the U.S. The good news: It's never too late to reduce your risk, according to the American Heart Association. Stop smoking today, and your chance of heart attack drops within a few months, your added risk of heart disease is reduced significantly within a year, and new research suggests some who quit may cut their risk of heart-related death to the level of never-smokers sooner than previously believed.

Your overall eating pattern is important, too — don't stress about an occasional indulgence, but make sure your diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting red meat and sugary foods and beverages. Getting a little more active, losing some weight and watching your blood sugar can also make a big difference in your heart health. Here are six more strategies to help safeguard your heart, based on recent findings.

Eat more fiber.

You've probably heard this one before: Dietary fiber helps reduce cholesterol. But there are a few new studies to back it up. Researchers analyzed a decade of data from more than 23,000 U.S. adults and found that those who don't eat enough fiber may be at an increased risk for heart disease. On average, the study participants consumed only about 16 grams of fiber per day, while the recommended daily amount is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. (After age 50, fiber needs drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.) More recently, British researchers examined international data on different kinds of fiber and found that every extra 7 grams of fiber consumed significantly lowered the risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. High-fiber foods include fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains and cereals.

Get your blood pressure checked.

Knowing if your blood pressure is high is important information. Left untreated, hypertension can damage arteries and other vital organs and raise your risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure, among other complications. Recent research has shown that many people are unaware of their high blood pressure; one study found that African Americans are twice as likely as whites to have undiagnosed and untreated high blood pressure and that the condition is more common among black women. Optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg. Starting at age 20, get yours checked at regular doctor visits or once every two years, if your pressure is normal, according to the American Heart Association's recommendations.

Reduce sodium intake.

That's some of the advice included in newly released cardiovascular guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Your body does need a little sodium to function properly — in small amounts, it helps keep fluids balanced, and it plays a role in muscle contractions. Too much, however, can lead to fluid retention and increased blood pressure, along with raising your risk of heart disease and stroke. The AHA recommends consuming less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day; on average, Americans eat more than double that amount. To help reduce your intake, target a "step-down" amount of 2,400 milligrams first as you work your way toward 1,500. Much of the sodium we eat comes from processed and prepared foods — check food labels on some common culprits, including tomato sauce, soups, condiments and canned foods.

Tackle a home improvement project.

Or you can tend a garden, if that's more appealing. For people 60 and older, these kinds of daily activities may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 30% — and even prolong your life — a Swedish study suggests. The idea is that you're sitting less and moving more, which helps improve health; that does not mean, however, that regular exercise isn't important for everyone. The AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days a week (or 25 minutes of vigorous activity three days a week), plus muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week for added health benefits. Walking is an excellent way to get started — it's simple, safe and free.

Avoid partially hydrogenated oils.

They provide an estimated 75% of the trans fatty acids in our diet — types of artery-clogging fats that are particularly harmful to our hearts. The Food and Drug Administration is working on banning artificial trans fats from processed foods by proposing that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer "generally recognized as safe." Right now, food labels can state 0 grams of trans fat if the food contains less than 0.5 grams per serving, so the best way to cut these manufactured fats from your diet is to look for partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient lists. Trans fats are often found in crackers, cookies, cakes and other baked goods; fried and snack foods; stick margarines; and shortening.

Ask about statins.

These are drugs used to lower cholesterol, and according to new guidelines, many more people may soon be taking them. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. More specifically, when too much LDL (bad) cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can get lodged in artery walls, along with other substances. These deposits (called plaques) can clog the arteries and reduce blood flow. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, a heart attack or stroke may result. Ideal LDL cholesterol levels should be below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL); 160 mg/dL and above is considered high. The new recommendations focus more on risk factors instead of cholesterol numbers. They say, for example, that middle-aged people with type 2 diabetes or those without cardiovascular disease who have 7.5% or higher risk for a heart attack or stroke within the next 10 years could benefit from statin therapy. Talk to your doctor to determine your best options.

The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon, health and wellness expert Jillian Michaels and psychologist Wendy Walsh. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.

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