Prevent Heart Disease and You’ll Lower Your Risk for Other Diseases

Here are five ways a heart-healthy lifestyle helps you dodge erectile dysfunction, memory loss and more.

Young man running on a path through a thick forest area, proactive exercise to promote good heart health

As comedian Norm Macdonald points out, your heart is more likely to attack you than a terrorist is. No joke. Heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S., claiming one in four men.

While a surprise date with the Grim Reaper is reason enough to keep your heart in tip-top shape, it’s not the only one. Maintaining your heart doesn’t just add years to your life. It adds life to your years. It also helps prevent health issues, such as memory loss and erectile dysfunction. Here are just a few benefits of living a heart-healthy lifestyle.

1. Prevents erectile dysfunction

Men might not think about their heart every day, but there’s another organ about 2 feet south that they contemplate more often, and taking care of one protects the other. "The same things that cause arteries in the heart to get disease cause the arteries of the penis to get disease and dysfunction,” says Cleveland Clinic cardiac surgeon Marc Gillinov, MD, coauthor of Heart 411 (Three Rivers Press) with Steven Nissen, MD, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Insufficient blood flow, because of clogged arteries, can cause erectile dysfunction. In fact, because the arteries of the penis are so small, erectile dysfunction often shows up before other signs of heart disease, and is a red flag that you should visit your doctor.

2. Reduces stroke risk

While a tepid sex life can be a serious downer, a stroke—or brain attack—can be a killer. A stroke occurs when blood fails to reach the brain, usually because of an abrupt arterial blockage. While a stroke is sudden, stroke risk factors can hunt you for years. On the most-wanted list are all the risk factors of heart disease: high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and clogged arteries. People who have had a heart attack due to a hardening of the arteries have more than twice the risk of a stroke, and men are particularly susceptible.

3. Prevents dementia

Living a heart-healthy lifestyle may help protect against memory loss and other signs of mental decline. According to Gillinov, certain forms of dementia are linked to changes in blood vessels in the brain. "The same plaques responsible for atherosclerosis can occur in the brain and lead to dementia," he explains. Middle-aged patients with several risk factors for heart disease are twice as likely to develop dementia in old age as middle-aged patients with only one risk factor.

4. Prevents depression

Think of depression and heart disease as travel buddies: They go hand in hand, says Gillinov. People with depression are more likely to have heart disease, and people with heart disease are more likely to suffer from depression. Adhering to heart-healthy habits, such as eating a Mediterranean diet and getting daily exercise, may help keep the blues away.

5. Lowers your diabetes risk

Getting a diabetes diagnosis is like turning the clock ahead 15 years. Not only does it affect your body’s ability to use sugar, it also destroys blood vessels throughout your body, which can lead to stroke, heart disease, nerve damage, loss of limbs and blindness (not exactly a fun way to spend your golden years). Here's some good news: The same basic steps you take to prevent heart disease (e.g., eating better, dropping a few pounds [if you need to] and walking most days of the week) also help prevent diabetes.

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