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No one can completely eliminate the risk of heart disease unless he or she can grow younger, choose healthy-heart genes or wish away cholesterol deposits inside the arteries supplying the heart. But you can stave off heart attacks and strokes for years with the same dietary and lifestyle changes that lower your risk of cancer and other diseases. Medicines can help, too.
*Don't smoke. It's a cliche, but it's true: If you smoke, stop. If you don't smoke, don't start. Smoking doubles a person's risk of having a heart attack and increases the risk of a host of other ailments, including strokes. Successful quitters often take advantage of comprehensive programs that may include medication, counseling, nicotine replacement and hypnosis. They also learn how to eliminate triggers that might make them want to light up.
*Control high blood pressure. Lose weight and exercise. If that isn't enough, your doctor can prescribe medications that work with minimal side effects. Eat 2,400 milligrams or less of salt a day.
*Reduce LDL, or "bad cholesterol." Adopt a low-fat diet, exercise and stop smoking. Consider taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug.
*Increase HDL, or "good cholesterol." Exercise. Researchers are attempting to develop drugs to boost HDL, but those drugs are still in the lab.
*Control diabetes. Often it can be controlled through diet, exercise and weight loss. Medication or insulin may be needed, too.
*Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise and adopt a healthy diet. The American Heart Association and the government's National Cholesterol Education Program recommend keeping dietary fats to below 20% of your total calories. A person can eat 5 to 6 ounces of cooked meat, fish or chicken a day, along with two to three servings of low-fat dairy products; six servings of breads, pasta, crackers or other starchy foods; three to five servings of vegetables, two to four servings of fruit; and no more than 8 tablespoons of fats and oils.
Sources: The American Heart Association, National Cholesterol Education Program, The New Living Heart by Michael E. DeBakey, M.D. & Antonio M. Gotto Jr., M.D.
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