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Living Well

How to Take Care of Your Heart from the Start

Last updated: Jan 30, 2017

It is never too early to focus on heart health. While the risk of developing heart disease begins to increase around ages 45 in men and 55 in women, the choices you make as a young adult can catch up with you come middle age.    

“You may be young at heart, but I encourage people in their early 20s to take ownership of this amazing pump that powers our body. That means you need to put the right fuel in it, take it out regularly for a spin, and get it road tested every few years,” says William Tansey, MD, a cardiologist at Summit Medical Group.

Heart disease still remains the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. But many cases of heart disease are preventable—or even reversible—with the right lifestyle choices. Here is how you can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke in your 20s, 30s, and 40s, before it is too late.  

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Dr. Tansey says the two most important risk factors for developing heart disease are high cholesterol and smoking. 

  • Reduce Cholesterol – When you have too much cholesterol, plaque begins to grow in the arteries and can prevent the blood from flowing freely to the rest of the body. This condition, called atherosclerosis, is the main cause of heart attack and stroke.

You can lower your cholesterol by eating a heart-healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, and lean proteins. Avoid processed foods and baked goods that are filled with added salt, fat, cholesterol, and sugar.

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “There is evidence that children as young as 13 can start building up plaque in the arteries if they are on the wrong diet. The cardiac diet used to emphasize avoiding high-fat foods like red meat and butter, but today we are increasingly more concerned about reducing carbs, such as bread, pasta, and potatoes.”

  • Quit Smoking – Lighting up is responsible for 30 percent of all incidences of heart disease and stroke. Cigarettes increase your blood pressure, reduce your immunity, and raise the risk of developing blood clots.

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “It is never too late to quit. In only one year, kicking the habit can cut your risk of a heart attack by half.”  

Other ways to lower your risk of heart disease include:   

  • Know Your Numbers – Schedule regular check-ups and go for annual screenings even if you feel healthy. Research shows that patients who have an ongoing relationship with a primary care physician are in better overall health, live longer, and have fewer health care costs.

In addition to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and blood sugar increase your risk of heart disease. Most people do not realize when their blood pressure is elevated or if they are pre-diabetic. These conditions do not have symptoms in the early stages.

  • Check Your Family History – If your immediate relatives—parents or siblings—have suffered a heart attack, your risk increases dramatically. Ask your family about their experience.

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “If you see a genetic tendency in your family, share it with your physician. They may recommend early screenings or stress tests to catch heart disease before it progresses.”  


  • Drink Less – Remember, everything in moderation. Alcohol can lead to weight gain, increase your blood pressure and excite irregular heart rhythms — three important considerations for heart disease. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.  
  • Exercise Regularly – Get moving for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Choose an aerobic exercise you enjoy such as walking, swimming, playing sports or even walking your dog. If you get bored, switch-up your workout routine. Remember to warm up and stretch before you exercise. 

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “You don’t have to kill yourself on the elliptical every day. A 30-minute walk is enough to give your heart a workout.”

  • Discuss Birth Control – Oral contraceptives can increase your blood pressure. If your numbers become elevated, talk with your physician about the added risk of being on the pill.

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “Never smoke and take birth control pills. It can cause serious problems, such as such as stroke, blood clots, or heart attack.”

  • Reduce Stress – Most 30-somethings are under a great deal of pressure between managing family, work, and financial obligations. Make time for leisure activities and schedule vacations from work. Talk to your physician if you have prolonged feelings of sadness or anxiety.    


  • Watch Your Weight – The body’s metabolism often begins to slow down once you reach middle age. You may need to cut additional calories to avoid packing on extra pounds.  

Dr. Tansey’s advice: “People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and sleep apnea, which can lead to irregular heart rhythms and other cardiovascular conditions.”

  • Get More Sleep - Research shows that adults over 45 who slept less than six hours per night were twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack when compared with those who slept six to eight hours.


  1. Interview with William Tansey, MD, cardiologist at Summit Medical Group (1/19/17).
  2. American Heart Association. “Know Your Numbers.” Go Red for Women.  Web. 19 January 2017.
  3. American Heart Association. “Quality of Sleep Could Increase Heart Risk.” Go Red for Women. Web. 19 January 2017.
  4. American Heart Association. Why You Should Quit Smoking. Go Red for Women. Web. 19 January 2017.
  5. American Heart Association. “Birth Control and Heart Disease.” Go Red for Women. Web. 19 January 2017.
  6. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “Who Is at Risk for Coronary Heart Disease?” Explore Coronary Heart Disease. Web. 19 January 2017.
  7. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “What Is Cholesterol?” Explore High Blood Cholesterol. Web. 19 January 2017.