Can You Prevent a Heart Attack? Everyday Things You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

Heart disease accounts for more deaths in the United States than any other condition or event — even cancer. Heart attacks — which can be a sign of underlying health issues — affect both men and women, though symptoms vary by gender.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know their hearts are sick until after they’ve had a sudden heart attack. But there may be a few things you can do to lower your risk and prolong your life.

What causes a heart attack?

Heart attack

Heart attack | iStock.com/champja

A heart attack occurs when blood stops flowing into your heart. This leads to damaged or destroyed heart muscle, which can be — but isn’t always — fatal.

This most often happens when the arteries that supply blood to your heart become narrow due to the formation of a substance called plaque. Plaque is a collection of cholesterol and other elements that build up inside artery walls and make it harder for your heart to circulate blood effectively.

Sometimes, pieces of plaque break off from an artery wall and cause a blockage. This is what stops blood flow to your heart, increasing the risk of heart muscle damage or death.

Occasionally, smoking or illicit drug use can cause these arteries to spasm, which also interrupts blood flow to the heart.

Who is most likely to have a heart attack?

Some people are at a greater risk of having a heart attack than others. Technically, anyone can have one, regardless of age, medical history, weight, or activity level. But those who are most at risk for experiencing a life-threatening heart attack include:

  • People who are overweight or obese
  • Those with diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure
  • Anyone over the age of 45
  • People who are not physically active
  • Those who engage in harmful behaviors in response to stress.

You’re also more likely to have a heart attack if you smoke or use illicit drugs, or have an autoimmune condition such as rhumatoid arthritis.

How to prevent a heart attack

heart monitor

Heart monitor | Evryka23/iStock/Getty Images

You can’t do anything about your age or your family’s heart attack history. But it’s not too late to take a closer look at some of the behaviors putting you at an increased risk. Can you make small changes to keep your heart healthy? Absolutely — here are just a few ways how.

  • Exercise consistently.¬†Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for heart attacks, strokes, and other life-threatening conditions. Experts recommend spending 150 minutes a week exercising. That’s no more than 30 minutes five out of seven days. You can do that!
  • Avoid foods that hurt your heart. Try to eat fewer foods high in salt and added sugar, and those that don’t provide much nutrition overall. This usually means cutting back on packaged snacks and other forms of junk food — at least a little bit to start.
  • Eat more whole grains. Grains are not harmful to your health; processed foods are. Whole grain¬†foods such as brown rice actually lower your overall heart disease risk and might even help you lose weight.
  • Practice good stress management. Sometimes, stress is inevitable. But you can control how you respond to it. Harmful habits such as drinking and overeating are often go-to stress relievers, but they’re slowly putting your heart in more danger each time you choose them over something healthier. Like a bubble bath.

There are a lot of things you can do to protect your heart. There are also things that just aren’t under your control. The best thing you can do is minimize the frequency of behaviors that could lead to dangerous — even deadly — outcomes. Don’t smoke. Eat better. Drink less alcohol. Lose a little weight.

If you pick one thing to change and give it your all, it’s likely that other changes will follow. Obstacles like these seem big and impossible at first. But start with one small step. It’s better than nothing.