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7 Simple Steps for Heart Health

New studies on women and job stress, benefits of moderate alcohol, dangers of grief, and more

En español | Doctors and scientists reporting the latest findings on how to prevent and treat heart disease say that people can protect their hearts by drinking moderately, getting sufficient vitamin D and exercising. But they also found that outside forces — stress at work, grief over the loss of a loved one — can and do endanger heart health.

Those were some of the revealing reports presented at the American Heart Association's annual Scientific Sessions in Chicago this week where researchers shared their insights and findings.

In addition to the studies that support healthy habits, researchers are doing intriguing work with cardiac stem cells to help those who have severely damaged hearts, and warning that the increase in popping vitamins and supplements can be dangerous.

Looking for a cheat sheet for preventing heart disease? The American Heart Association has created "Life's Simple Seven" — hit the right levels of these and you'll greatly reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Easier said than done, though, or more people would be paying attention. Fewer than a quarter of middle-age and older adults in a group of nearly 18,000 men and women between the ages of 45 and 84 have reached healthy levels. This in spite of the fact that the chance of dying over the next four years dropped by 14 percent for every additional step achieved.

Follow these seven steps — and we know it's not always easy — to keep your heart happy. The links for each step provide health tools, fitness plans, additional research and tips to help you reach and maintain healthy levels.

Does it pay off? You bet! Men and women with "ideal" levels of four health factors — nonsmokers with healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels — tend to have lower levels of coronary artery calcium and carotid artery thickness, both serious risk factors for heart disease.

Don't shrug off advice for a heart-healthy lifestyle and blame it on your genes. Genetic factors play only a modest role in achieving ideal heart health. Researchers at Northwestern University conclude that strategies to improve lifestyle habits may have a major impact in cutting the chances of developing heart disease.

"This new message focuses on health, not disease," says University of Miami neurologist Ralph Sacco, M.D., president of the American Heart Association. "Many of these seven simple steps will also reduce the chances of having a stroke or developing dementia so they'll make your brain healthy as well as your heart."

To get started on the road to good heart health, log on to mylifecheck.heart.org. You'll find out how you're doing and get your own heart score and customized action plan.

The following is a roundup of some of the most important research to come out of the AHA conference this week and includes links to more detailed reporting from the AARP Bulletin.

How job stress hurts your heart. >>

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