How to Prevent Heart Disease in Your 20s

Even young people can ward off certain kinds of cardiac risk with these healthy habits

Smiling, young African American woman in the healthcare field takes good care of her heart.February is American Heart Month, and at any age there are steps you can take to protect your cardiac health. Even people in their 20s can support themselves in living longer. You may already make some of these lifestyle choices, but given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., it’s worth reviewing heart-healthy guidelines, even when you’re young.

Take into account the following factors of your heart health, and then take some action:

Know your family’s history

You probably know you should eat right, get some exercise, and not smoke, but some of the factors that contribute to heart disease are not under your control. Genetic factors—which run in your family—can have a big impact on your current and future cardiac health. So talk to members of your family, and especially the older generations. Find out if any of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others have ever had a heart attack, suffered from heart disease, or had known risk factors for it. If you find that it runs in your family, then it’s more likely that you are at risk as well—even if you take good care of yourself. The information is essential, so talk with your doctor about what you discover. There might be steps you can take in terms of lifestyle as well as medication to keep your risk factors under control.

Get your numbers checked

There are certain medical numbers that you should know now, even if you’re young, so you have a baseline for comparison later on. This means you should make a visit to your doctor for some basic testing. One of the numbers to know is your cholesterol; your total intake every day should be less than 200 mg. You want a blood pressure reading that is no higher than 120/80 mm Hg. You can go to the American Heart Association’s Go Red Heart Score and take an online survey to get more details about your level of risk.

Stay away from smoke

The risk of heart disease for smokers can be from twice to four times as likely as those who don’t smoke. If you smoke throughout your life, you’re looking at a lifespan that is 13 to 14 years shorter. And for a woman smoker, the danger is even greater—you’re 25 percent more likely to develop heart disease than a male smoker. The good news is that, when you stop smoking, you can cut your heart disease and stroke risk in half within one year. And the longer you stay away from smoking, the more your risk goes down.

But even if you don’t smoke yourself, being exposed to second-hand smoke presents a danger. The U.S. Surgeon General says that exposure to second-hand smoke can increase the likelihood of heart disease or lung cancer by 30 percent. So encourage your friends and loved ones to quit, too, and if they do smoke, keep them at a distance when they light up.

Make the drinking moderate

You might not realize it, but drinking alcohol can affect your heart. Heavy drinking can make your blood pressure spike, and possibly even cause a stroke or lead to heart failure. Women need to be especially careful about their alcohol consumption. The definition of “moderate drinking” for women is only one drink a day. How much is that exactly? It’s 1.5 fluid ounces (fl oz) of spirits that are 80 proof (like gin, vodka, or bourbon), 12 fl oz of beer (a bottle), or 4 fl oz of wine (a glass). Any more than that, and you’re risking your heart health.

Get out and exercise

According to the American Heart Association, to maximize your heart health you need to exercise three or four times every week for 40 minutes. This can be a brisk walk, but more intense cardiovascular exercise like jogging and cycling are also good options. Take a friend along with you—it will make the time go by more quickly. Take aerobics or a Zumba class if you want to be distracted while you sweat. Lifting weights is another way to go. There is a whole range of options for heart-healthy exercise to try as well as ways to fit exercise into your busy day.

Make your diet a priority

Eating to support your heart requires looking at each meal as an opportunity to get a range of nutrients from different food groups. Most important are vegetables and fruits (aim for 4 to 5 cups per day) and whole grains (try to get three one-ounce servings daily). But you also want to choose low-fat protein options, such as fish (twice a week) and low-fat dairy. Another healthy way to round out your diet is to get in four servings each week of nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans and peas)—and make sure they’re unsalted! Once you’ve made sure to add the healthy stuff to your diet, then concentrate on limiting or eliminating foods that are high in ingredients that can do your heart harm, like saturated fat and sodium. Avoid those sugary drinks, as well as any processed food with added sugar, and you’ll be well on your way to a heart-healthy diet. Try these healthy eating tips to get started.

Be aware in choosing birth control

Women might not think of birth control as one of the lifestyle choices that can affect heart disease, but it’s important to consider the risks of certain forms. Oral contraceptives are one method than can make a woman’s blood pressure rise, and if you take it, you should monitor your blood pressure on a regular basis. There are other birth control options that don’t pose the same risks, and these are worth considering, especially if you smoke or if heart disease runs in your family. The most important thing is to make well-informed decisions.

If you make a commitment to building heart-healthy habits in your 20s, you’ll be in good shape as you age. A high quality of life will mean decades of enjoying yourself, feeling strong, and being able to spend time and be active with those you love. It’s worth the investment! So use what’s left of this American Heart Month to invest in your heart health!

This post is part of the weekly blog of the Harris School of Business. We care about the health and wellness of all our students. Reach out to us for more information about our career training programs, including Medical Assisting, Medical Billing and Coding, and Massage Therapy. Call us at 800-510-7920 for more information or to schedule a tour of one of our eight campuses in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut. We hope to hear from you!