It’s American Heart Month and tomorrow, February 7, is National Wear Red Day, when you can wear your concern about the country’s number-one killer on your sleeve. Literally. A quarter of deaths each year are due to heart disease (much more if you count all the related diseases such as stroke, hypertensive kidney failure and disability due to aging arteries). While there have been significant improvements for men, research shows that women are not faring as well in the fight, and that high blood pressure might be the reason for the divide.
Fortunately there’s good news. There are many things you can do right now to keep your blood pressure in a healthy range well into the future. And wait! It gets better! You’re probably doing a lot of them already and without even realizing it.
If you are a spin class junkie… you’re doing more than burning crazy calories and toning your legs. You’re also getting a great cardiovascular workout. With every sweat session, you are helping to lower both the top systolic and bottom diastolic numbers of your blood pressure. (Those represent the pressure being exerted when your heart contracts and the pressure in the arteries when your heart is at rest, respectively.) Cardiovascular activity might also help by exercising or stretching your arteries, making them more elastic.
If you are trying to cut down on sugar… your waist size might go down—and so will your chances of cardiovascular disease. Excess sugar in the blood stream damages the grout between the tile-like cells lining your arteries and increases inflammation all over your body. Eating less sugar protects those important areas inside your blood vessels. And—bonus!—it slows down the wrinkling and sagging of aging skin.
If you are into seafood dinners… you’re providing your body with omega-3 fatty acids that reduce the levels of triglycerides in your blood that are a big cause of arterial plaque build up. Salmon and ocean trout are the only fish consistently found in North America with the complement of DHA omega-3s (which are also vital for your brain and eyes). Three portions of wild salmon a week or 900 milligrams of DHA in supplements a day also reduces your blood pressure.
If you’ve talked to your doc about two baby aspirins a day… (even if just to prevent breast and colon cancer), you’re being proactive in discussing something that has risk, but may have greater benefits for you at decreasing arterial aging. Remember to take them with half a glass of warm water before and after.
If you love all things tomato… you’re making your blood vessels and heart younger by lowering your blood pressure and risk of plaque formation. Cooked tomatoes, or tomato products or extracts in any form will do the trick. To-may-to, to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing good for your ticker.
If you enjoy a glass of red wine… or white, or beer or a cocktail, you are doing your heart a favor by raising your levels of healthy HDL cholesterol. One 4-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce bottle of beer or a drink with a single shot each night can be a cool, calming prescription for lasting heart health.
If you practice yoga and meditation… then you are likely reducing your stress levels, which, yup, you guessed it, goes a long way toward lowering your blood pressure, especially blood pressure spikes. Emotional stress puts physical stress on your heart by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, and promoting inflammation. A relaxing practice, controlled breathing and quiet meditation will do as much to stave off hypertension as it will to shake off the emotional tension of a long day.
If you’re a chocoholic… you might be getting your just des(s)erts. Now, you don’t want to go overboard—chocolate is a treat, after all—but enjoyed in doses of about an ounce a day, dark chocolate (70 percent cacao and above, no milk fat, low sugar) may be as effective as the most common antihypertensive medications on the market. And it may increase good HDL cholesterol while lowering bad LDL cholesterol. Sweet.
MORE: Take the Look Younger Longer Quiz and See How Well You’re Aging