How to improve heart health at any age

In honor of February being Heart Health Awareness Month, let’s review some basics of heart health for people of all ages. We may assume that heart health only matters to middle age and older adults, but the truth is, heart disease can affect people at any age. Because disease states, or signs and symptoms, are occurring at a younger age, it is critical for young people to pay attention to heart health, because their habits influence long-term heart health outcomes. 

Higher rates of obesity and blood pressure among those 35-64 years of age are leading to alarming statistics: Half of all Americans now have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and/or smoking) (CDC, 2018). Let’s look at major risk factors for heart disease and how our behavior at any age can impact them.Side view of young african woman doing yoga in gym

Blood Pressure – Having uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the biggest risks for heart disease. Recommendations for blood pressure assessments should start by 18 years old if not earlier. Those with managed and low blood pressure may only need to check once a year. Those with uncontrolled and elevated blood pressure should be checking more often. Blood pressure can be positively influenced by regular exercise and eating habits. Getting your blood pressure measured and forming good habits at a younger age may decrease some risk for high blood pressure when older.  

Cholesterol – High cholesterol impacts atherosclerosis (the plaque formation lining the arteries) which can cause arteries to harden and lose their ability to expand and contract, increasing one’s risk for heart disease. Eating healthy, regular exercise, and weight loss can often lead to improving cholesterol numbers.  

Smoking – Smoking damages heart vessels leading to the increased risk of heart disease. While some other risks can have a genetic link, smoking is truly a behavior that can be combated. Never starting smoking at all, or stopping smoking, can drastically influence heart health on both the short and long-term spectrum.  

Obesity – Excess weight can mean excess pressure on the heart. Obesity ties into other risk factors in that an increased weight can lead to increased blood pressure and cholesterol measurements. Again, eating and exercise habits can help to manage and maintain weight that positively impacts heart health.

Diabetes – Long term and uncontrolled diabetes can damage blood vessels in and around the heart, along with nerves that may control heart muscles. Heart disease and diabetes are often linked as comorbidities, we see them together regularly in patients and having one may increase the likelihood of the other. The good news is that impacting one can often help with the other.  Management often comes back to eating and physical activity habits, along with medication.

Physical activity and inactivity – A broad goal of exercise is 3-5 days per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise getting close to a total of 150 minutes per week. It’s important to recognize both ends of the spectrum in that it’s not enough to just be active, we also want to decrease sedentary behavior throughout the day. In addition, there is varied spectrum of exercise, in that you can walk, run, bike, dance, swim, hike, do yoga, and so much more.  So find what you enjoy, what motivates you, and what feels good. Then try to do it more often.  

Heart health is frequently an afterthought of something we’ll only deal with when we are older.  However, our habits at any age can have both positive and negative compounding effects on heart health. Working to combat heart health problems by addressing our behavior(s) that lead to major risk factors is a great place to start. Remembering the life balance of not every meal has to be perfect, nor do we have to do vigorous exercise every day, but the habits of regular exercise and healthy eating influence most major risk factors in a positive way.  

Kimberly Burke is the director of the Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University, an outreach program through the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members, while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students. To learn more see the Adult Fitness Program website.