Your heart is one impressive, overachieving organ: In the minute it takes you to read these paragraphs, it will have pushed a whopping 1.5 gallons of blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels—that's more than twice the circumference of Earth. Yet despite your ticker's superpowers (and the fact that it keeps you, well, alive), most women don't do enough to safeguard their heart health.
That's right, we're talking to you. Heart disease is the number one killer of all women, says health advocate and former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, M.D.
"It can and does affect young people," he stresses. In other words, it's not just a problem for geezers. The following are simple lifestyle tweaks that can help you live a long, healthy life.
1. Have more sex
Getting busy at least twice a week can reduce your risk for heart disease by lowering blood pressure and reducing stress, says ob-gyn Andrew Scheinfeld, M.D., a clinical instructor at New York University Langone Medical Center. You'll still be helping your heart even if you never reach the Big O; researchers suspect that just being aroused can trigger your brain to release hormones such as dehydro-epiandrosterone (DHEA), which may improve circulatory-system function and boost cardiac performance.
No partner? No worries. "I encourage my patients to take matters into their own hands," says Scheinfeld. And science backs him up. Numerous studies show that women who experience increased sexual frequency and satisfaction—with a mate or on their own—have a greater resistance to heart disease.
2. Drink wine with dinner
Yes, you read that right. In moderation, booze can actually benefit your heart. Drinking one—we repeat, one—glass of red or white wine a day can decrease the chance of dying from heart disease by 25 percent.
3. Skip the salt
Despite conflicting headlines, you should still bypass most saltshakers, says cardiologist Ashley Simmons, M.D., of the University of Kansas Hospital. Your body counteracts sodium intake by releasing extra water into the blood, leading to increased blood volume and a seriously overworked heart.
4. Snag enough sleep
Frequently missing out on Z's can take a toll on your ticker in the form of high blood pressure, and we're not just talking about older folks. Nearly 20 percent of people from 24 to 32 years old already have the problem, which has few symptoms but can eventually lead to heart failure, according to a new study in the journal Epidemiology. Aim for around seven to eight hours of sleep a night, says Barbara Phillips, M.D., a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
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5. Get a move on
Consider this: On a minute-by-minute basis, your heart muscle labors twice as hard as your leg muscles during a sprint. And you have to work your heart out to keep it working. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (think brisk walking or cycling) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise (i.e., cardio that's intense enough to make carrying on a conversation difficult), plus strength training at least twice a week. But the most important aspect of exercise is making it a habit. "Time is not as important as frequency," says Scott Danberg, director of fitness at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami.
6. Calm your mind
Stress and heart disease go hand in hand, says Martha Gulati, M.D., director of women's cardiovascular health at Ohio State University. If you're constantly frazzled, your body's high levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) can lead to rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure, a potentially deadly combo. Too much cortisol can also damage arterial linings, making it harder for blood to deliver nutrients to your organs.
Knock down your stress level by hitting the mat: A recent study found that three months of biweekly yoga can help regulate both cortisol and irregular heart rate. Lauren Maher, a certified yoga therapist in Los Angeles, recommends starting with the uber-relaxing "cat-cow" pose: Get onto your hands and knees and slowly inhale while arching your back toward the ceiling; slowly exhale and round your back down toward the floor. Repeat for three minutes.
7. Floss every day
Gum disease doesn't just make for foul breath and a mangled smile—it's also murder on your heart. If you're breeding bacteria between your teeth, your immune system is on chronic high alert, a condition called inflammation that taxes your vital organs, including your heart. In fact, a woman's chance of having a heart attack may double if she has gum disease, according to the Academy of General Dentistry.
Flossing is the best way to banish dangerous oral bacteria, so whip out that string every night before brushing your teeth, says Mark Schlesinger, D.D.S., of the New York University College of Dentistry.
Answers to your pressing cardiac questions:
Is it true my heart can get bigger and stronger?
Yes! Like the Grinch's, your ticker can expand over time. Pretty amazingly, it can grow larger to accommodate new muscle. In other words, you're not just toning your abs and arms at the gym, you're also getting a buff heart.
Will taking antioxidant tablets help keep my heart healthy?
There's no proof that antioxidant supplements offer any heart benefits, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In fact, some studies suggest that taking certain vitamin pills, such as beta-carotene, can actually do damage to your heart. Whenever possible, get your antioxidants straight from food sources such as blueberries, artichokes, and red beans.
Can smoking the occasional cigarette hurt my heart?
Even one little cigarette may be enough to narrow blood vessels and cut off blood flow to the heart, says Woodrow Corey, M.D., of Indiana University Hospital. The nicotine in cigarettes can also increase blood pressure and up your chances of developing atherosclerosis, a buildup of fat in the arteries—regardless of whether you're a once-in-a-while smoker or a two-packs-a-day addict. Bottom line: Stay away from smokes. Period.
Sometimes my heart flutters for a few seconds. Is this normal?
A healthy heart maintains a steady rhythm of 50 to 90 beats per minute (the average woman's heart beats some 35 million times a year!), but outside stimuli such as alcohol, caffeine, or certain cold medicines can momentarily throw it off track. These minor blips are a fairly harmless form of an abnormal heartbeat, or arrhythmia. If you feel your heart fluttering often, or if the sensation is accompanied by pain, shortness of breath, or dizziness, call your doctor right away. A rapidly contracting heart might be a sign of a more serious arrhythmia (some of which may be life threatening) or another medical problem.
A lot of my older relatives have heart disease. Am I destined to get it too?
No. While genetics play a role in cardiac health, you're largely in control of your heart's future. According to the AHA, the vast majority of heart-disease cases are completely preventable if you follow healthy lifestyle advice (like ours!).
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