You know that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can spell trouble for your heart. But some cardiovascular dangers are less obvious, and can pose big threats to the health of your ticker.
Cardiologist Ashesh Parikh, DO, helps us break down seven hidden risks, and offers tips for improving your heart health.
Depression and mental illness
A 2012 study found that mild depression and anxiety – where symptoms are so subtle that people may not think to go to the doctor and get diagnosed – ups heart disease related deaths by 29 percent. High levels of depression and anxiety also meant more than double the risk of heart-related death.
Why? Depression and anxiety, and daily stressors such as a fight with a spouse, all contribute to spikes in cortisol levels, says Dr. Parikh, and increased cortisol ups your chances of high blood pressure and heart disease. Research has also found that depression raises your risk of arterial clogging and makes you less likely to exercise and eat right, which also contributes to poor heart health.
One study looking at 13,000 middle-aged adults and seniors found unemployment to be a serious threat to cardiovascular health. The risk of heart attack went up a little more each time participants experienced a job loss, from 22 percent after the first bout of unemployment to up to 63 percent after four or more. Additionally, researchers found that four or more job losses were just as harmful to the body as diabetes, high blood pressure and even smoking!
Researchers believe this comes down to many factors. People who lose their jobs may skip out on preventative care and check-ups, plus job loss also increases stress levels, a known risk factor for heart disease.
Poor oral health
Flossing may seem futile at the end of a long day, but research shows protecting your pearly whites could help keep your ticker strong.
According to Dr. Parikh, when your mouth is unclean, or you have an abscess, cavity or gum disease that goes untreated, their bacteria ends up in your blood stream, eventually making its way into the valves of the heart. The bacteria from your mouth can grow on those valves, put pressure on them and even cause them to rupture or break. This condition, called endocarditis, can even be life-threatening.
A southern diet
It can be hard to turn down fried chicken and gooey mac and cheese. Unfortunately, these and other Southern staples are often laden with saturated fat and loads of sugar – all bad news for your heart.
One study out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that people whose diet consisted heavily of Southern-style foods had a 56 percent increased risk for heart attack. Those people were also more likely to have hypertension and diabetes – clear markers for future heart attack.
Suffering through traffic is no fun at all – and it can also cause damage to your heart.
“We’ve seen that if patients’ commutes are longer than 30 miles, they tend to be much more obese and have a much higher risk for heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Parikh.
Research has also shown that long commutes increase blood pressure, cholesterol and anxiety, and all that time in the car may take away from your fitness routine or tempt you to choose unhealthy fast food – all things that seriously up your heart disease risk.
To make you commute healthier, Dr. Parikh suggests packing your own healthy snacks, like smoothies, so you’ll steer clear of all the junk on your way home.
E-cigarettes have been gaining popularity since they first debuted in 2004. While they've been marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes, experts warn that the long-term effects are still unknown. And studies have hinted that certain substances in e-cigs, such as nicotine, still have damaging effects on the heart.
Dr. Parikh says, “E-cigarettes can be a bridge to help you quit smoking as a last resort. The nicotine level is not as high as cigarettes, and for very heavy smokers, we might recommend the switch to an e-cigarette to eventually wean them off completely.” Just remember that no cigarette, not even e-cigarettes, are safe when it comes to your overall health, says Parikh.
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen
When a headache threatens to derail our day, we often reach for over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen. But recent warnings from the FDA say the use of NSAIDS could up your risk of heart attack and stroke, even after short-term use, and the risk goes up the longer you take them.
But that doesn’t mean you have to toss your go-to pain reliever. In Dr. Parikh’s opinion, as long as you stick to the safety and dosage recommendations listed on the bottle, you’re okay.
“If you’re taking it within the recommended dose, it’s still a very safe drug.”