The Worst Habits for Your Heart

Lifestyle factors you can easily change account for more than 90 percent of heart attack risk, a landmark study of about 30,000 people in 52 countries suggests. And making small, positive changes in your everyday habits can have a surprisingly big impact on your heart health—or even save your life. 

Here’s a look at six of the worst habits for your heart, and how to turn them around.

Being Glued to the Tube

Spending too much time parked in front of the TV can actually be fatal, according to a 2011 study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The researchers found that people who devoted four or more hours a day to screen-based entertainment—mainly watching the tube--had double the risk of a major cardiac event resulting in hospitalization, death or both, compared to those who spent less than two hours daily on these activities.

Another compelling reason to limit TV time: Those who spent the most time on leisure-time screen-based entertainment had a 48 percent higher risk of dying prematurely, even if they also exercised. Recent research also shows that too much sitting can be just as bad for your heart as smoking.

The Warning Signs of Heart Attack

Having a Negative Attitude

 While stress and depression have long been linked to higher heart disease risk, a new Harvard review of more than 200 earlier studies, published this month in Psychological Bulletin, highlights the benefits of turning that frown upside-down: An optimistic outlook may cut heart disease and stroke danger by 50 percent.

And while you may think that happy people are just healthier, the researchers found that the association between an upbeat attitude and reduced cardiovascular risk held true even when they took the person’s age, weight, smoking status, and other risk factors into account.

Research also shows that laughter literally does the heart good, by expanding the linings of blood vessels and boosting blood flow. A fun way to add more joy to your life—and defuse stress--is laughter yoga, an exercise program that combines self-triggered mirth with deep yogic breathing to  draw oxygen deeper into the body.

Top 10 Simple Ways to Leave Stress Behind

Ignoring Snoring

 Frequent loud snoring can trumpet obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a dangerous disorder that magnifies heart attack and stroke risk, if untreated. OSA (bouts of interrupted breathing during sleep) frequently goes undiagnosed because people don’t recognize the symptoms, which include waking at night for no apparent reason and unexplained daytime drowsiness.

If you fit this profile, ask your doctor to order a sleep study. Because OSA, which affects 18 million Americans, is most common in people who are heavy, treatment typically involves weight loss and in some cases, continuously positive airway pressure (CPAP), a device that blows moist, heated air in your nose and mouth as you sleep.

Can an Oral Device Treat Sleep Apnea?

Forgoing Fiber

 Not only does a high-fiber diet boost your heart health, but it could add years to your life, according to a recent study of nearly 400,000 people, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and American Association of Retired People.

The researchers found that men ages 50 and older who ate the most fiber were up to 56 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases and respiratory ailments, compare to those who ate the least. For women ages 50 and up, a high-fiber diet lowered risk of death from these causes by nearly 60 percent.

Another study involving more than 300,000 men and women found that eating eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day trims the risk of a fatal heart attack by 22 percent, compared to eating less than three. Researchers from the World Cancer Research Fund also report that if we ate more fiber, and less red meat, more than 64,000 cancer deaths would be prevented annually.

Failing to Floss

 People with periodontal (gum) disease are nearly twice as likely to have heart disease as those with healthy gums. While the reasons for the link aren’t yet clear, one theory is that the same bacteria that trigger gum disease may also spark inflammation inside the body, damaging arteries. Gum disease affects nearly 50 percent of Americans, many of whom don’t know they have it, because in the early stages, it’s painless.

A new study published in Journal of Aging Research adds to mounting evidence that one of the simplest—and cheapest—secrets of long life is taking care of your teeth, with daily brushing and flossing. Conversely, neglecting your chompers—and skipping dental visits—can be lethal, the researchers report. During the 17-year study, those who never flossed were 30 percent more likely to die than were those who flossed daily.

Smoking Even a Little

 Smoking even one cigarette a day increases the threat of heart attack by 63 percent and smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day more than quadruples it.

Need more motivation to quit? Tobacco use also boosts risk for diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many types of cancer. A 2010 study reports that using a nicotine patch for six months makes it easier for smokers to kick the habit. Munching on low-calorie foods, such as carrot or celery sticks, or chewing sugarless gum, can also help curb nicotine cravings.

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