Even if you hit the gym regularly and stub out the smokes, your ticker still might be a time bomb.
You don’t smoke. You hit the gym regularly, and even eat a vegetable or two at most meals. But even if you’re generally in good health, you still could be doing some seemingly innocent things every day that could damage your ticker.
For this American Heart Month, learn which common behaviors might be putting your heart in danger. Here, 10 surprising ways you’re hurting your heart—and how to stop.
Former rock stars and jackhammer operators, take note: Prolonged exposure to high-decibel noise—like the racket from construction, live music, or traffic—has also been linked to heart risk.
People with a high-frequency hearing loss in both ears—a condition that commonly occurs due to noise-related damage—had nearly twice the risk of heart disease as those with normal hearing, according to a study in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine. For those with cacophonous occupations—think factory or construction worker—the risk quadrupled.
Researchers aren’t completely sure why, but believe a constant din could spark an overdose of damaging stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Protect your heart—and your ears—by wearing protective gear like earplugs or earmuffs for loud jobs, recommends the American Academy of Otolaryngology. And seek help if your ears ring or you think your hearing’s starting to slip.
Smog harms more than your lungs. In fact, exposure to traffic and air pollution can take the blame for about 5 to 7 percent of all heart attacks worldwide, according to a study in the Lancet.
That may be because people living in polluted areas had a greater risk of harmful plaque buildup in the arteries over 10 years than whose air was clearer, a separate study in the Lancet found.
Not ready to leave urban life? Reduce your risks by checking the air quality on a site like https://www.airnow.gov/ and moving your workout or other activities indoors when it’s poor. Whenever you can, try to choose running and cycling routes away from traffic and close to trees or bodies of water, which help soak up harmful particles and gases.
There’s no single gene linked to heart troubles. But a blend of genetically predetermined risk factors and shared environment (for instance, similar diets and exposure to secondhand smoke if your parents lit up) means cardiovascular conditions sometimes cluster in families, says Richard Wright, M.D., the cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
If a first-degree relative—that’s a parent, sibling, or child—had heart disease at a young age (younger than 55 for men, 65 for women), that doubles or triples your risk, Dr. Wright says. Your grandparents’ fate may also matter. So, ask around about health problems at your next holiday dinner or reunion.
Then, share what you learn. If your father had bypass surgery at age 52, tell your doctor at your next visit. You might need extra testing for risk factors like high cholesterol or to keep on higher alert for heart-related symptoms, Dr. Wright says.
Even though you feel awake after your triple-shot Americano, you still can’t get by on four or five hours of sleep. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation increases your adrenaline and stress hormones, jacking up your heart rate and blood pressure and overloading your heart, says cardiologist Justin Trivax, M.D., medical director of the Cardiovascular Performance Clinic at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
Plan your days and nights to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep most of the time, Dr. Trivax recommends. And when that’s not possible, nap away, he suggests—preliminary research presented at a recent European Society of Cardiology conference found mid-day naps reduced blood pressure by 4 percent and prevented damage to the arteries and heart.
Knowing a few key numbers, such as your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose level can go a long way in protecting your heart health.
“It doesn’t have to be every three months or even every year, but people should be in tune with their risk of underlying risk of heart disease so it doesn’t sneak up on them and end in tragedy or bypass surgery,” says cardiologist and researcher Matthew J. Budoff, M.D., of the David Geffen School of Medicine and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.
One other number to check your coronary artery calcium score, which your doctor determines with a CT scan of your heart. Even found even a small amount of calcium or plaque buildup on the arteries before can increase your risk of heart attack: In fact, people ages 32 to 46 with any discernible buildup were 5 times as likely to have a heart attack within 12 years than those with clear scans, a study in JAMA Cardiology found.
Many cardiologists, including Dr. Budoff and Dr. Trivax, recommend a coronary calcium scan for men age 40 and older or with multiple risk factors for heart disease.
Though both regular heart-pumping cardio and muscle-building strength training are critical for proper cardiovascular function, it’s possible to take things too far, says Dr. Trivax. Take weightlifting. Straining and using the Valsalva maneuver to hoist the heaviest load possible can create extreme spikes in blood pressure that, in people with an underlying weakness, can trigger a deadly aortic dissection, he says.
And endurance athletes aren’t off the hook, he says. Though the data aren’t definitive, some studies suggest a link between an extremely high volume of cardio—think Ironman or ultramarathon training—and a harmful thickening of the heart muscle.
So discuss your risk factors with your doc before you start training for extreme sports.
Regardless of your workout habits, hours spent glued to your seat also pose a cardiovascular danger, Dr. Trivax says. Researchers are still working to understand why, but think it might be due to decreases in blood flow and reduced efficiency in turning blood sugar into energy.
According to a recent research review in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the average adult spends more than half his waking hours taking a load off. And lingering longer in the recliner was linked to a greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease—even in people who exercised for an hour a day.
What’s more, a recent report by Danish researchers suggests merely standing up isn’t always enough. Young, fit people might need a stronger stimulus—say, a flight or two of stairs or a few lunges—every hour or so to undo the damage. Set phone alarms or use an app like Move to remind you.
Just because something’s over-the-counter—or marked all-natural—doesn’t make it safe. Some of the performance-enhancing or energy-boosting products in your medicine cabinet could have harmful consequences.
One reason? They may contain banned substances, like steroids, hormones, or even prescription drugs that may pose a risk to your heart health. And scary thing is, many supplements—most marketed to boost weight loss, sports performance, or sexual health—remained available months after they were officially pulled from the shelves for heart-attack risk or other safety concerns.
Your safest bet? Talk with a healthcare provider, such as a pharmacist, about all the stuff you’re taking.
That goes double if you already have a heart condition, risk factors like cholesterol, or take any heart-related medications. For instance, St. John’s Wort—commonly used to battle fatigue and sexual dysfunction—interferes with many cardiologist-prescribed drugs, Dr. Trivax says.
You know you should ditch the sugar and fried foods from your diet, but if you’re not adding some fins and scales, you could still be at risk of a deadly heart incident.
The populations around the world who eat the most seafood tend to have the best heart health, likely because they get adequate amounts of essential omega-3 fatty acids, Dr. Trivax says. Fish richest in these vital nutrients include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and bluefish.
You don’t have to go full pescetarian to get the benefits—just order the fish instead of a steak or burger at least a couple times a week and you’ll reach American Heart Association recommendations for consumption.
In fact, people who dined on fish just once per week halved their risk of a fatal heart attack over 10 years compared to those who ate none, according to a Dutch study.
Not every heart attack or other cardiac event comes with crushing chest pain or shortness of breath. Some symptoms, such as fatigue, pain in the jaw or neck, nausea, or lightheadedness can sneak up more stealthily.
Though these warning signs often have other causes—especially in young, healthy men—they’re worth a conversation with your doctor, especially if you have a family history or other risk factors, Dr. Trivax says.
And then there are factors that don’t seem related at all, such as erectile dysfunction. However, problems getting—and staying—hard could serve as early red flags of heart issues, since damage can affect the small blood vessels in the penis before it travels to larger arteries and veins.
Your doctor can help you get back into action, and also make sure your ticker’s humming along smoothly.