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A Closer Look at the Causes of Heart Disease

Practical tips for decreasing your risk of heart disease

A healthy heart is foundational to a healthy life. A healthy lifestyle will often help you have a healthy heart.

Each year there are over 17,000,000 deaths worldwide related to heart disease. 80% of those deaths are preventable.1 Unfortunately, the symptoms of heart disease can sneak up on you and you may not know you are at risk until the damage is done.

Heart attacks and heart disease can quickly derail your plans for your life. Instead of worrying about the possibility of an unhealthy heart, you can learn what causes heart disease, how to prevent it and how to decrease your risk.

What Causes Heart Disease

Research has not found any surprises on the causes of heart disease. Atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty plaque in the lining of your arteries, is the biggest culprit. The plaque makes it more difficult for your blood to flow through your arteries to your vital organs and tissues. This causes damage to your heart and blood vessels.

Atherosclerosis is caused by what you could call the terrible three lifestyle habits2:

  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking

Mix those habits together with a high dose of stress and you have a recipe for heart disease! The good news is that these risk factors are all changeable. You can’t change other risk factors like age and genetics.

Takeaway tip: Know what causes heart disease and choose one thing that is increasing your risk. Make a plan to change that habit.

How to Prevent Heart Disease

Diet. Good nutrition fuels and primes your body for health. Bad nutrition will slow you down and clog your arteries. A diet high in unhealthy fat, salt and sugar has been shown to increase heart disease. High blood pressure hardens your arteries. High cholesterol increases the levels of plaque in your bloodstream.

There are 2 highly recommended eating plans that improve not only your heart health but also your brain health. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan3 and the Mediterranean Diet. There are slight differences but the foundations are the same.

All of the best diets for heart health emphasize loading your plate with:

  • Vegetables, focusing on greens, broccoli, cabbage and carrots
  • Fruits such as apples, berries, melons and citrus
  • Whole grains
  • Foods high in protein
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and avocado

With all those nutrient dense foods on your plate, you won’t have room for much more. But just in case you are still hungry, try to limit salt, sugar and alcohol.

Takeaway Tip: Choose one nutrient dense food you will add to your eating plan this week. Also choose one highly processed food you will cut back on. You can do both of these at once. For example, instead of having a blueberry danish with your breakfast, add a bowlful of fresh or frozen blueberries.

Exercise. You already know that physical activity keeps us healthy. By choosing to regularly get up and moving you can decrease these four big risk factors for heart disease.

Regular exercise:

  • lowers your cholesterol levels
  • lowers your blood pressure
  • helps you lose extra weight
  • lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Aim to try and get moving for 2 and a half hours each week. That is at least 20 minutes each day. You have 20 minutes, right?

Ideally you will get your heart beating faster for at least 10 minutes at a time. Walking is the easiest exercise to add to your day. Swimming, dancing, cycling and weight lifting are also good choices.

Takeaway Tip: Start by adding 5 minutes of activity to your day. Could you turn on some music and invent a few dance moves in your living room? Try walking faster when you go to check your mail, maybe go twice a day!

Smoking. If you need another reason to quit smoking, do it for your heart. The nicotine will make your blood vessels smaller and the carbon monoxide destroys the inside of the heart vessels. If you smoke you are at a higher risk of heart disease.4

But smoking is a hard habit to break. Remember though, it is a habit and a choice. That means you DO have control over the habit! Yes, it is hard to conquer but it is possible. Check with your doctor about programs or products that could help you quit. Then try again.

Takeaway Tip: Decide why you want to quit smoking. Is it for yourself? So that you can feel better? Or so that you can play with your grandkids longer? Find out what will motivate you to quit and post a reminder where you can see it.

Stress. Stress causes high levels of inflammation or swelling in all areas of your body. If you do not take steps to reduce and manage your stress, your arteries can become damaged. There has even been research that shows that a highly charged emotional situation can lead to heart attacks! Coping with stress by drinking more alcohol, smoking, suppressing feelings or overeating will not help. You need to recognize stress and learn good strategies for how to relieve the pressure on your body.


  • Talking to a qualified mental health provider to learn new coping strategies
  • Practicing meditation
  • Increasing physical activity
  • To learn to let go of past hurts and frustrations
  • To make an intentional practice of enjoying your relationships

Life circumstances are often outside of your control but how you choose to respond to them is always in your control.

Takeaway Tip: Look at how you are currently dealing with the stressors in your life. Is there one area you want to change? Add a short and simple new habit to your day such as: list five things you are thankful for before you get out of bed or practice 30 seconds of deep breathing when you feel your anxiety rising.

What’s the best way to decrease the risk of heart disease? The secret is to know what you are up against. What’s your biggest risk factor? Don’t worry about the ones you can’t change. But take a minute and think about the risk factors that are most relevant to you. Then start with one small step. One new habit can make all the difference.