Why You Should Protect Your Heart Health Even If You Don't Have Heart Disease, According to New Research

For folks above a certain age, heart health should always be top of mind.

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As you get older, it's always wise to think about how you can support your health—whether that means adding a little more fiber to your diet when you turn 40 or trimming down your sodium intake at 50. And now, new research from the American Heart Association indicates that looking out for your heart health at age 50 is also high on the priority list.

A study published in Circulation, the American Heart Association's journal for cardiovascular health, found that in a group of more than 25,000 adults without a heart disease diagnosis, 40% of the subjects had signs of atherosclerosis, a buildup of fat in the heart arteries. That condition can impair the blood flow to the heart, making it tough for that major muscle to do its job. While atherosclerosis isn't technically a type of heart disease, it can still cause heart attacks.

The study also found that folks between the ages of 50 and 54 were nearly half as likely to have atherosclerosis than those between the ages of 60 and 64, and men tended to develop signs of atherosclerosis 10 years ahead of the women in the study.

"It is important to know that silent coronary atherosclerosis is common among middle-aged adults, and it increases sharply with sex, age and risk factors," study author Göran Bergström, M.D., Ph.D., said in a press release.

To test for atherosclerosis, a doctor would typically turn to a cardiac CT scan for coronary artery calcification, sometimes called a CAC. Someone who scores a zero on the CAC has no symptoms of clogged arteries. However, this study also found that more than 5% of people who scored a zero on the CAC did have signs of atherosclerosis when examined with a coronary computed tomography angiography scan, which is much more detailed.

It's not clear what causes atherosclerosis, but some experts believe it begins when the interior wall of an artery is damaged. High cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, diabetes and cigarette smoking can all be hard on the arteries and could possibly cause damage to their interior walls. A diet high in saturated fat and lack of exercise could also be contributing factors, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The good news is that there are quite a few ways to support your heart health through diet, exercise and mindfulness. We have some ideas for heart-healthy recipes you can incorporate into your cooking routine, and there are also certain ingredients and snacks that can help you stick to a heart-healthy eating pattern (including these convenient dietitian-approved Amazon buys).

Adding some fatty fish like salmon to your typical diet can be another simple but helpful change, as can focusing on whole grains, snacking on nuts and choosing olive oil over butter when cooking. And since high cholesterol may be a factor when it comes to the integrity of your arteries, you might want to add oatmeal to your breakfast routine—eating more whole grains can lower your risk for heart disease by 21%.

When it comes to exercise, getting in your cardio by going for a walk around the block or a jog on the treadmill is never a bad idea—but new research shows that strength training can also be a great way to stay on top of your cardiovascular health. Additionally, stress can be hard on your heart. Taking time to clear your mind, be outdoors or just do something kind for others are all great ways to relieve that stress.

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