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Fran McCaffrey works out at Ephrata Rec Center in Ephrata on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. McCaffrey adopted a diet and exercise regimen for heart health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

The good news for people 50 and older is there are ways to prevent the risk of cardiovascular disease with diet, exercise and lifestyle changes, says Dr. Ross Biggs, a cardiologist with The Heart Group of Lancaster General Health. He recommends the seven ways to lower your risk of heart disease from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Along with a heart healthy diet, seniors benefit from exercise which has been shown to reduce the number of fatal heart attacks,” Biggs says.

When a patient experiences symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath or palpitations, their family medical doctor will refer them to a cardiologist who can do a variety of tests to determine heart health.

“Life stressors need to be managed in an appropriate way,” Biggs says.

There's a connection between one's mindset and the health of their heart. Negative emotions like stress, rage and grief can be cardiotoxic, or bad for the heart.

Biggs acknowledges there are nontraditional risk factors for heart disease, such as genetics, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and psoriasis to name a few. But with advanced testing and individualized preventive measures, the heart and blood vessels can stay healthy.

People typically learn about high blood pressure and cholesterol issues from their doctor. Changing bad habits and taking prescribed medications, if necessary, can lower the risk of heart disease.

Food choices

Cholesterol can play a big role in an unhealthy heart. Food choices are important for those with high cholesterol levels. But is it more important to avoid foods that are bad for cholesterol or to choose foods to lower it?

“Overall focusing on heart healthy food choices will lead to not only naturally avoiding bad foods, but also incorporating ones to naturally support lowering and balancing cholesterol," says Dr. Dana Elia, a licensed dietitian nutritionist and owner of Fusion Integrative Health & Wellness, Willow Street.

Elia says natural foods without additives like added fat, sugar and sodium are the key to a heart-healthy diet. Seasonal colorful fresh fruits and vegetables are a good choice along with frozen ones. Choose whole grains, rather than highly processed refined ones, plus herbs and spices like garlic and cinnamon.

Some studies show some foods with high fat content are healthy. This change from earlier years is due to the difference among sources and quality of fats in our diet, Elia says. There's a difference between fats from animal products conventionally raised versus organic. Healthy fats can be found in olive oil, cold water fish, fish oils, nuts, seeds and avocados.

Dark chocolate and red wine are healthy for your heart, too, Elia says, but she wouldn't advise adding them new to your diet as you can get the same benefit from fruits, vegetables and teas.

Though fast food has lots of unhealthy ingredients plus calories, Elia says it's OK to indulge once in a while, just don't make it a habit. As for supplements, she says, “You can't out-supplement a bad diet.”

Elia says she has seen successful outcomes for people over 50 who improve their heart health through following good nutritional guidelines. Some were even able to reverse blood sugar and lipid issues.

“It's never too late and you're never too old to make nutritional changes for a healthier heart,” she says.

Read the labels

Elia advises looking at the nutrition facts as well as the ingredients to determine if a product is healthy. An individual's dietary goals or health factors will determine what they need to focus on — calories, low sodium, cholesterol, sugar, fiber, saturated fat or trans fat.

A good rule of thumb, she says, is to look for zero trans fat. If you see the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on a label, put the product back on the shelf, she says.

“You won't find a nutrition label on healthy fresh produce,“ Elia says of choosing healthy foods.

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