En español | Heart disease and stroke are among the leading causes of concern for men and women age 50 and over, according to our poll. Cardiovascular disease begins to affect men in their 50s, while women in general won't see a spike in risk until their 60s. But no matter your age or gender, you can take steps to protect yourself. Check out the answers to your ticker-related questions.
Most of my elder family members died of heart disease. Am I doomed?
Absolutely not. “You can't change your genes, but you can change your lifestyle,” says cardiologist Jennifer H. Mieres, a professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and coauthor of Heart Smart for Women. Now is the time to schedule a yearly physical with your general practitioner or a cardiologist to establish baselines for all your relevant stats. Also ask your doctor if you're a good candidate for a CT scan that screens for atherosclerosis. It takes minutes, uses low doses of radiation, is relatively affordable and has been found to accurately identify people at high risk for the condition.
Should I start to eat less red meat?
Probably. Studies show that high consumption of red meat is associated with increased levels of TMAO, a chemical marker produced by gut bacteria that has long been linked to heart disease. Great news: Limiting red meat can decrease elevated levels of TMAO within a month. Mieres recommends going meatless one day a week and getting more protein from beans and fish.
Will watching cable news give me a heart attack?
It depends. Do the hyperventilating anchors make you laugh or growl? Stress — from sources as varied as PTSD, chronic sound pollution or an infection — is associated with heart disease risk, perhaps because it taps into the amygdala, the reptilian hindquarter of the brain. In one study, brain scans showed that people with high amygdala activity were more likely to develop heart disease than those whose emotional centers were quieter, possibly because it stimulates an inflammatory response in the arteries.
Is whole milk OK?
Yes. A recent study has shown that consuming full-fat dairy products is associated with a longer life. In a 2018 study of more than 130,000 adults in 21 countries, those who ate two or more daily servings of whole-fat dairy had a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease and 34 percent lower risk of stroke than those who ate less dairy.
I get out of breath climbing the stairs. Do I have heart disease?
If this happens only during exertion and not while you're going about your normal routine, you're probably just out of shape, says cardiologist Karen Alexander, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. Here's a better fitness test: Can you sit on the ground and get up again without using your hands? An inability to do this is linked to mortality in adults over 50.
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Am I more at risk for heart disease now that I'm through menopause?
Yes. Estrogen protects the heart by keeping arteries pliable and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol — and that's one reason why heart disease spikes in women about 10 years after menopause, Mieres notes. One thing to focus on now: sleep. Snoozing less than six hours a night boosts the odds of heart disease.
Should I take aspirin every day?
The American College of Cardiology recommends that otherwise healthy people ages 40 to 70 with a high heart attack risk (and low risk for bleeding) take a low-dose aspirin daily. Diabetics with moderate and high risk should also pop a pill. For those at lower risk, it's not so clear-cut. New research in the Lancet looked at more than 12,000 people and found little difference between those who took a daily aspirin and those who took a placebo.
Do I have too much salt?
If you eat a lot of packaged foods, then yes. The average person consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, more than twice the amount (1,500 mg) the American Heart Association says is ideal. Seventy percent of that comes from processed foods; bread, cold cuts and cheese are all among the top sources of sodium. One safeguard: Eat more fruits and vegetables to increase your potassium intake. This mineral can help to lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
I have erectile dysfunction (ED). Is this a sign of heart disease?
Definitely get your heart checked before asking for Cialis. Multiple factors are at play with ED, but a 2018 study in the journal Circulation found that men with the condition were more likely to have type 2 diabetes or heart disease and had double the normal odds of suffering a heart attack or stroke.