How to Reduce Your Risk for Heart Disease

Mary T. Abed, MD, Chief of Cardiology, Jersey City Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Health facility

Did you know that you have the power to reduce or even reverse your risk of cardiovascular disease? Many Americans don’t. In fact, the American College of Cardiology reports that more than 90 million Americans carry a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease and it accounts for approximately 800,000 deaths in the United States each year. Even more startling is that nearly half of all Americans have at least one major risk factor for heart disease, but many don’t know it or don’t act upon warning signs. 

There are risk factors for heart disease that can be controlled and ones that cannot. While age, gender, and family history do play a role in risk factors of heart disease, these cannot be changed. However, there are several risk factors that you can control, and managing these is essential to achieving overall health and well-being, while also significantly reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease. February is American Heart Month, and there is no better time to take charge of your heart health.  

Some major risk factors of heart disease that can be controlled include: Blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking and diabetes. Getting these risk factors controlled is essential to achieving overall health and well-being. Simple lifestyle changes that can improve your heart health, include:

  • Avoid or Quit Smoking.  Smoking doesn’t just put you at risk for lung cancer. Cigarette smokers are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. No matter how long or frequently you’ve smoked, your risk of developing heart disease drops significantly within one year of quitting.
  • Physical Activity. Studies show that at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day may help prevent heart disease. Don’t be afraid to start small. Daily activities, like walking, parking further back in the parking lot, or taking the stairs, can easily add up.
  • Healthy Diet.  Follow the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). This diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole rains, low-fat dairy, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, beans and low in artificially sweetened foods and beverages. Eating healthy may sound like a daunting task, but if you start small by cutting sodium and increasing your whole grains, you’ll be on a much healthier path. Include as much fresh food as possible and minimize processed foods and fast food.
  • Coping with stress.  Continued stress can have a significant negative impact on your heart.  People cope with stress in a number of ways –  find a healthy outlet that works for you, such as listening to music, exercising, or indulging in a favorite hobby. Avoid situations or individuals who you know act as stressors in your life.
  • Know your cholesterol level. Have your cholesterol checked annually. If your cholesterol is 200 or above, consider adopting a low-fat diet and increasing your activity level. Pay particular attention to your LDL or your “bad cholesterol” level and talk to your doctor about how to reduce your numbers.
  • Keep blood sugar under control. If you have diabetes, chronic high blood sugar can narrow your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease. People with diabetes also tend to have lower levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and increased levels of triglycerides (blood fats), adding to the risk for heart disease.
  • Get checked by your doctor. Check your lipid panel and get screened regularly for blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and diabetes. This can help you understand your individual risks and take appropriate action.

Oftentimes, people tend to ignore signs that your heart is in trouble. Not all heart problems come with the traditional or stereotypical warning signs. 

Warning signs not to ignore:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, including pressure, squeezing, or pain in the upper chest, back, or lower abdomen – commonly mistaken for indigestion or heart burn
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Recurrent dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion, impaired thinking and feelings of disorientation 
  • Shortness of breath with activity, or difficulty completing regular activities 
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen
  • Wheezing, or a persistent cough, due to fluid that leaks into the lungs

It’s about noticing your changes in ability to perform normal tasks. For example, if you usually don’t have trouble taking the stairs, but suddenly you can’t take the stairs without getting winded or without feeling that “heartburn” sensation, that’s something that should catch your attention. 

Your heart affects every other part of your body and deserves your time and attention.  If you experience any of the symptoms described above, visit a cardiologist immediately. 

For more information or to make an appointment with one of New Jersey’s top cardiologists or cardiac surgeons, visit or call 1-888-724-7123