8 Things Sabotaging Your Heart Health

From long commutes to ibuprofen, learn more about these lesser-known cardiovascular dangers.

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You know that smoking and an unhealthy diet can spell trouble for your heart. But some cardiovascular dangers are less obvious—and may be life-threatening, according to Ashesh Parikh, DO, of Medical City Alliance and Medical Center of Fort Worth in Texas.

Dr. Parikh helps us break down eight hidden risks and offers tips for improving your heart health.

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Sitting too much

Spending long periods of time parked on the couch isn’t good for your heart—or your health in general. Multiple, high-quality studies have found that sitting is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, COPD and much more. And the longer you’re parked, the worse it is for you.

There are ways you can help counteract the effects of sedentary behavior, including:  

  • Taking breaks: Try short walks or stretching throughout your day. Many healthcare providers (HCPs) recommend standing up and doing something every 30 minutes.
  • Moving around during downtime: Standing, stretching and folding laundry are good options when you’re doing something passive, like watching television.
  • Adding steps to your day: Try walking meetings with coworkers, using stairs instead of escalators or doing a lap around your office to get to the breakroom. 
  • Exercising: The general guidelines for overall health are at least 75 minutes of vigorous or 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, but any movement can help.
woman talking to doctor
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Depression and mental illness

The health of your heart is linked to the health of your mind. In fact, experts theorize that this connection may be a two-way street. Between 20 and 30 percent of those with heart disease also have depression. Meanwhile, people with depression are 64 percent more likely to develop coronary artery disease (CAD) and 59 percent more likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event in the future, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports.

Scientists are still working to understand this bi-directional relationship. One 2012 meta-analysis found that mild depression and anxiety—where symptoms are so subtle that people may not think to go to the HCP and get diagnosed—were linked to a 29 percent increase in heart disease mortality. High levels of depression and anxiety were also associated with more than double the risk of heart-related death.

Why? Depression, anxiety and daily stressors—such as a fight with a spouse—are possible explanations. They all contribute to spikes in cortisol levels, says Dr. Parikh, and increased cortisol raises your chances of high blood pressure and heart disease. Research has also found that depression is connected to a higher risk of arterial clogging and makes you less likely to exercise, eat right and seek medical care, all of which contribute to poor heart health.

man having a crisis
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One 18-year study looking at 13,000 middle-aged adults and seniors found a strong link between unemployment and cardiovascular health. Participants’ risk of heart attack increased a little more each time they experienced a job loss, from 22 percent after the first bout of unemployment to up to 63 percent after four or more. What’s more, researchers found that four or more job losses were as potentially harmful as diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking.

Researchers believe many factors may be involved. People who lose their jobs may skip out on preventative care and check-ups, for instance, and unemployment also increases stress levels, a known risk factor for heart disease.

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Poor oral health

Flossing may seem futile at the end of a long day, but research shows protecting your pearly whites could help keep your heart strong.

According to Dr. Parikh, when your mouth is unclean or you have an abscess, a cavity or gum disease that goes untreated, their bacteria ends up in your bloodstream, eventually making its way into the valves of the heart. The bacteria from your mouth can grow on those valves, put pressure on them and even cause them to rupture or break. This condition, called endocarditis, can be life-threatening.

chicken and fried green tomatoes
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An unhealthy diet

It can be hard to turn down fried chicken and gooey mac and cheese. Unfortunately, these and other comfort food staples are often laden with saturated fat and loads of sugar, both of which are bad news for your heart.

One study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that people whose diet consisted heavily of so-called Southern-style foods had a 56 percent increased risk for heart attack. Those people were also more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes, which raise the odds of a heart attack.

Luckily, you don’t have to avoid all of your favorites. Instead, opt for healthier versions of grandma’s cooking:

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Long commutes

Suffering through traffic is no fun at all—and it can damage your heart.

“We’ve seen that if patients’ commutes are longer than 30 miles, they tend to be much more obese and have a much higher risk for heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Parikh.

Research has also shown that long commutes are linked to increases in blood pressure, cholesterol and anxiety. All that time in the car may take away from your fitness routine or tempt you to choose unhealthy fast food, too—and that can that seriously raise your heart disease risk.

To make your commute healthier, Dr. Parikh suggests packing your own healthy snacks such as nuts, fruit or lightly salted popcorn. That way, you’ll steer clear of junk on your way home.

woman vaping
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E-cigarettes have skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years. While they've been marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes, experts warn that, beyond the evident potential for lung damage, the long-term effects are still largely unknown. And studies have hinted that certain substances in e-cigs, such as nicotine, can harm the heart.

There is limited evidence that e-cigs may be helpful for kicking regular cigarettes. But they’re not approved by the FDA for that purpose, and there are many other safe, effective and proven alternatives. Just remember that no cigarette, not even e-cigarettes, are safe when it comes to your overall health, says Parikh.

two pills in a hand
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When a headache threatens to derail our day, we often reach for over-the-counter NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and naproxen. But the FDA warns using NSAIDS could raise your risk of heart attack and stroke—even after short-term use. And the longer you take them, the higher your risk.

But that doesn’t mean you have to toss your go-to pain reliever. The FDA recommends taking the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible duration. In Dr. Parikh’s opinion, “If you’re taking it within the recommended dose, it’s still a very safe drug.”

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Reinberg, Steven. “Even Mild Depression, Anxiety Hurt the Heart.” Everyday Health. August 1, 2012.
“Screen Teens With Depression for Heart Disease, Experts Say.” HealthDay. August 11, 2015.
Blue, Laura. “Unemployment is hard on the heart, and the harm may add up.” November 23, 2012.
Klystra, Carmen. “10 Things Your Commute Does to Your Body.” February 26, 2014.
Walton, Alice. “Study: ‘Southern Diet’ Strongly Linked to Heart Disease.”
American Dental Hygienists Association. “INFLAMMATION: The Relationship Between Oral Health and Systemic Disease.”
American Heart Association. “Inflammation and Heart Disease.”
Reinberg, Steven. “More Evidence That Southern Cooking Boosts Heart Risk.” HealthDay. August 10, 2015.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “E-cigarettes & Heart Health.”
Cleveland Clinic. “E-Cigarettes: Tobacco-Free, But Your Heart May Still Be at Risk.”
Curfman, Gregory. “FDA strengthens warning that NSAIDs increase heart attack and stroke risk.” Harvard Health Publishing. July 13, 2015.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA strengthens warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause heart attacks or strokes."

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