Is Your Heart Healthy? How to Improve Heart Health

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Sabeen A. Chaudry, MD Sabeen A. Chaudry, MD View Profile
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Do you know if your heart is healthy?

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for Americans. About 697,000 people in the United States die from heart disease each year – that’s one in every five deaths. It’s also the number one killer of women in the U.S., resulting in one-third of all female deaths. 

Everyone can benefit from focusing on their heart health and addressing their risk factors for heart disease.

Understanding the signs of heart disease, the risk factors, and how to check your heart health at home is a great first step in improving your heart health.

What Are the Early Signs of Heart Disease?

Heart disease often develops over time, and you may have early signs or symptoms long before you have serious heart problems.

Early warning signs of heart problems can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles or feet
  • Fatigue
  • Fast or uneven heartbeat known as palpitations

“You know your body better than anyone else. It is important to look out for changes in how you feel. For example, someone who can climb a flight of stairs with ease and now must stop to catch their breath halfway up, or developing chest pain or pressure during some activities, those are signs of possible heart disease that you need to get checked out by your doctor,” said cardiologist Dr. Sabeen Chaudry of the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Health.

She noted published research by a cardiologist in Spain reported that “climbing four flights of stairs in less than a minute indicates good heart health.”

Another marker is the Cooper “12 Minute Run/Walk Test” which measures how far a person can cover (run, walk, jog) in 12 minutes and rates your difficulty in breathing as a marker of endurance as it ties into your heart health, and which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Check Your Blood Pressure

One of the most important things your doctor will check during a routine exam, and that you can check yourself with a home monitor, is your blood pressure.

High blood pressure can damage your arteries by making them less elastic, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart and leads to heart disease. In addition, decreased blood flow to the heart can cause chest pain called angina.

Learn more about how to manage your blood pressure from our experts.

Check Your Heart Rate

Checking your heart rate (the number of times your heart beats in a minute) can help give clues to how your heart is functioning. By feeling your pulse, you can tell how fast your heart is beating.

All you need to check your heart rate is a watch with a second hand.

  1. Place your index and middle finger on the inner wrist of your other arm.
  2. Set your stopwatch to count ten seconds.
  3. When you begin feeling your pulse/heartbeat, notice whether the rhythm is regular (evenly spaced) or not.
  4. Once you feel your pulse, begin counting the number of pulses or taps you feel in ten seconds.
  5. Multiply the number of pulses you counted by six to find your heart rate for one minute. 

Dr. Chaudry noted some wearable devices such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit can measure your heart rate. Some even set off an alert signaling irregularities the wearer might need to seek professional help for.

“A normal resting heart rate as a measure of health for most adults is anywhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute,” Dr. Chaudry said.

Using a Portable EKG Device to Check Your Heart

There are also a number of EKG devices on the market today that can check your heart if you are feeling the symptoms of an irregular heart rhythm.

“While these devices can be helpful in identifying heart rhythm changes, especially if you are having symptoms of palpitations or your heart is racing or skipping a beat, they cannot identify if you are having a heart attack,” said Dr. Chaudry.

Whether at home, on vacation, or just out and about, you should be able to recognize the signs of a heart attack should one strike. However, according to a 2019 study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, nearly 6% of survey respondents – representing over 13.5 million adults in the United States – were not aware of any heart attack symptoms.

Signs of Heart Attack

Signs of a heart attack in men and women include chest pain (angina) and shortness of breath. However, Dr. Chaudry noted there can be some difference in symptoms between men and women who are having a heart attack.

“Women are more likely than men to experience nausea, unexplained tiredness and shoulder or jaw pain,” she said.

There are also many things you can do on your own to address risk factors for heart disease – almost half of all Americans have at least 1 of 3 key risk factors for heart disease which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

“You can keep your blood pressure in check by reducing the amount of salt in your diet, exercising regularly, watching your waistline and eating a healthy diet. While high cholesterol can in some cases be genetic, you can reduce your chances of developing this heart risk by eating more healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. You should also limit your fat intake and eat more plant sources of protein, and exercise regularly. Avoid tobacco at all costs and don’t smoke or be around smokers whose second-hand smoke can be harmful to you,” said Dr. Chaudry.

Can You Check for a Heart Blockage at Home?

Coronary artery disease (CAD), or a blockage of the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle), is the most common type of heart disease. When coronary arteries are blocked, it is usually caused by a build-up of fats, cholesterol, or other substances within the arteries.

If you're concerned about a heart blockage, you should talk to your doctor or (in an emergency) call 911.

Signs of Coronary Artery Disease

It can be difficult to know on your own if you have blocked arteries because people often do not recognize the symptoms at first. As the artery becomes narrower, your heart will get less and less blood and your symptoms will become more noticeable. If a coronary artery is completely blocked, it will cause a heart attack. 

While you can’t see the blockage in your veins at home, you’ll likely know something is wrong.

If you have a heart blockage, you may experience:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Weakness, light-headedness, nausea, or cold sweat
  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder
  • Shortness of breath

CAD can weaken your heart muscle and lead to heart failure. If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 right away.

If you are at risk for CAD, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can use a variety of tests to diagnose CAD, including EKG, echocardiogram, stress tests, and more. 

Can You Clear a Heart Blockage Naturally?

There’s no instant at-home fix. If you think you have a heart blockage, call 911.

Eating a few vegetables won’t clear out a heart blockage, but lifestyle changes can help clear out blockages over time and decrease your risk of heart disease.  

How to Improve Heart Health

If you have risk factors for heart disease or already have heart disease, there are lifestyle changes you can make to improve your heart health at home.

Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet

While there are no guaranteed recipes or special diets, research shows eating more plant-based foods and fewer foods high in saturated fats is good for your heart.

That may mean eating less:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • dairy products
  • fish
  • eggs

And instead, eating more:

  • grains
  • legumes
  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • nuts
  • seeds

Exercise Can Improve Your Heart Health

Being active is also important for your heart health.

The American College of Cardiology recommends 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise a week to maintain heart health.

“Also, if you have diabetes, you will want to work with your doctor to maintain healthy blood sugars. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart,” said Dr. Chaudry.

“Discussing your risks for heart disease with your doctor is important during a well-visit. Your doctor can best assess your risks for heart disease, order diagnostic tests if needed, and develop a plan with you to maintain good heart health,” said Dr. Chaudry.

Diagnostic tests could include blood tests, cardiac CT scan, cardiac MRI, cardiac catheterization, coronary angiography, echocardiography, stress testing, electrocardiogram, and others.

Quit Smoking to Improve Your Heart Health

Quitting smoking can also help reverse plaque.

The CDC says quitting smoking after a diagnosis of heart disease reduces the risk of:

  • Premature death
  • Death from heart disease
  • Having a first heart attack or another heart attack

    It’s difficult, but worth it. Get tips for quitting smoking.

Take the Test to Measure Your Heart Health

There are many free and easy online heart risk assessments you can take to determine your heart health.

Here are two tests that calculate your 10-year heart and stroke risk:

Risk calculators are a helpful way to find out how healthy your heart is and to help you plan for preventing heart disease. However, you should discuss the results with your doctor.

A stethoscope wrapped around a red heart-shaped stress ball

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