A heart attack or myocardial infarction occurs when blood flow to the heart is restricted. It is a serious medical emergency that affects more than 800,000 Americans every year. The underlying cause of heart attack is usually coronary heart disease, which develops when a fatty substance called plaque builds up and narrows the arteries, restricting blood flow.

Genetics and other health conditions can increase the risk of a heart attack, but for the majority of people, the most important factors are environmental ones, such as diet and lifestyle. In most cases, making a few small changes can greatly reduce the risk of a heart attack.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

We all know that eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for overall wellness, but eating enough fruits and vegetables may be especially important for cardiac health. Research shows that people who regularly consume nutrient-rich produce, especially leafy green vegetables like kale and those high in vitamin C like tomatoes and citrus fruits, have a lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who don't eat them.

Farmer woman holding wooden box full of fresh raw vegetables. Milan Krasula/ getty Images


Eat More Whole Grains

Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, as they are a good source of fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Studies show that whole grain consumption is linked to lower levels of rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and ulcerative arthritis, as well as a reduced risk of coronary artery disease.

In recent years, the range of whole grains available on the market has dramatically increased and includes barley, spelt, quinoa, buckwheat, and brown rice.

Young woman cutting whole grain bread and cheese in the kitchen. EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/ Getty Images


Choose Lean Protein

Meat protein is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, but research suggests that not all animal proteins have the same effect. Diets prioritizing poultry, low-fat dairy, and fish as animal proteins carry a 13% to 30% lower risk of coronary heart disease than those high in protein from other meats.

Diets favoring vegetable protein—like beans and lentils—have a lower mortality rate than those containing mostly protein from meat.

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Consume Less Sodium

Research shows a strong correlation between high sodium intake, obesity, and high blood pressure, the latter two being significant risk factors for heart attack. The current daily guideline for adults is 2,300 mg daily, but most people consume much more than this.

Some processed foods, such as ready meals, snacks, and bread, a quite high in sodium. People trying to reduce their sodium intake should avoid packaged food or look for low-sodium options, choose fresh food when possible, and use spices instead of salt to add flavor.

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Exercise Regularly

Staying active is an essential part of staying healthy, and this is especially true for cardiac health. Research suggests that people who exercise regularly have a 50% lower risk of a cardiac event than less active individuals. The CDC recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week to stay healthy.

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Quit Smoking

There is undeniable evidence that smoking is bad for our health. Smoking is linked to an increased risk of several diseases, including coronary heart disease and heart attack. Research shows that people who smoke have heart attacks at a younger age than non-smokers and that even passive smoking is harmful. Quitting smoking significantly reduces the risk of a heart attack.

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Reduce Stress

Most people deal with some form of stress in their lives. Stressors can be physiological—pain, injury, extreme weather—or psychological, like work- or school-related stress, financial pressure, or loneliness. Repeated exposure to stressors has a detrimental effect on the body and can increase the risk of having a heart attack.

If your life has been excessively stressful lately, consider practicing meditation, tai chi, or yoga, or look into counseling and minimizing or eliminating the most stressful elements.

Mindful young woman calming down in stressful situation. fizkes/ Getty Images


Lower Bad Cholesterol

Cholesterol plays an important role in cardiac health, but not all cholesterol is the same. Plaque build-up is caused by high levels of LDL cholesterol, sometimes known as "bad" cholesterol, and this is what increases the risk of having a heart attack.

HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can actually lower the risk of heart disease. Quitting smoking, reducing saturated fats, and increasing physical activity are the best ways to lower LDL and increase HDL.

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Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for kidney disease, stroke, and heart attacks. High blood pressure can damage the heart's arteries, making them less able to expand, which decreases blood flow to the heart and may cause a heart attack.

Most people can manage their blood pressure by exercising regularly, eating well, managing stress, and not smoking. Some people, however, will need to take medication to keep their blood pressure within healthy limits.

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Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential to allow the body to function normally. Not getting enough sleep is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Research suggests sleep quality, not duration, is what matters most when it comes to cardiac health; poor quality sleep may increase coronary heart disease risk by as much as 91%.

Try implementing a regular nighttime routine incorporating good sleep hygiene practices to help improve your sleep quality.


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Maintain a Healthy Weight

One of the best ways to lower the risk of heart attacks is to maintain a healthy weight. Dieticians and nutritionists recommend staying away from quick fad diets and instead opting for long-term, safe methods of weight control like being mindful of calorie intake, eating nutritious meals, and exercising regularly.

Obesity increases blood pressure, insulin resistance, and cholesterol levels, which are all contributing factors to cardiovascular issues like heart attacks.

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Limit Alcohol

Excess drinking can have lasting effects on the body, including raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of stroke, obesity, heart attacks, and many other conditions. However, drinking moderate amounts can potentially have a cardioprotective effect.

Experts define a moderate amount as two drinks per day for most men and one drink for most women. One "drink" would be about five ounces of wine or 12 fluid ounces of beer. All that being said, medical professionals do not recommend nondrinkers start drinking or that drinkers increase the amount they consume to reach those levels.

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Manage Diabetes

According to some research, the majority of people over the age of 65 with diabetes die from some type of heart disease. This amount is two to four times higher than the general population. The same steps that promote good cardiovascular health—maintaining a healthy weight, proper diet, and active lifestyle—also manage diabetes symptoms and complications.

Young nurse doing a glucose blood test on her senior patient, during a home visit vitapix/ Getty Images


Stay Hydrated

Dehydration can become a serious issue that leads to a series of complications, from swollen feet to life-threatening issues like a heart attack. The amount of fluid each person needs varies on their activity level and health status, as well as environmental factors like temperature.

Conditions like diabetes or heart disease usually increase the amount of water an individual needs. Generally, the rule is that if a person is thirsty, they are already experiencing dehydration; ideally, we should be prioritizing fluids throughout every day.

Mature woman drinking glass of water in the kitchen looking through the window BartekSzewczyk/ Getty Images


Think About Preventative Testing

In addition to lifestyle changes, medical screening can be a useful tool for determining heart attack risk. Routine tests that measure blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, and glucose levels can help detect the early warning signs of heart disease for people who at at greater risk.

Other tests, like ECG and echocardiogram, can also measure how well the heart is functioning. Research shows that calcium scoring (a test that measures calcium in the arteries) could also be a good way to predict the likelihood of a future heart attack.

 Patient Having a Check-Up FatCamera/ getty Images


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