Heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the United States each year — 1 in every 4 deaths — more than any other disease, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s commonly known that exercise and eating a healthful diet are keys to keeping your heart in tip top shape. But there are seemingly unrelated conditions and lifestyle habits that can lead to heart disease.
Here are five lesser-known causes of heart disease that you can do something about: Sleep apnea; stress, anxiety and loneliness; sitting all day, influenza and dental disease.
1. Sleep Apnea
“Sleep apnea is very common, especially as we get older, and it puts enormous stress on the heart,” says Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.
People who have sleep apnea tend to also have other conditions that are associated with the disease, such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a kind of irregular heartbeat) or pulmonary hypertension, which Freeman defines as high blood pressure on the right side of the heart.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include daytime sleepiness, memory problems and irritability. Being overweight or obese and even structural features, such as having a big chin or tongue, may also make you more likely to develop sleep apnea, according to the American Lung Association.
Premenopausal women are less likely to have sleep apnea than men, but postmenopausal women and men of any age share similar risks. After reaching adulthood, sleep apnea becomes more common with age until you reach 60, when the chances of developing it begin to taper off.
One way to treat sleep apnea is to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine at night. However, Dr. Mark Peterman, a cardiologist at Texas Health in Plano, says that many people find the machine uncomfortable to use. Other treatment options, depending on the severity of the problem, include weight loss, oral appliances (similar to a mouth guard), nasal decongestants and surgery.
2. Stress, Anxiety and Loneliness
Stress can have powerful effects on the body that wreak havoc on your health. Some stresses, such as learning a new language or skill, can be positive. But Freeman says the majority of stress people experience, like worrying about children or finances, tend to have negative effects on the body.
While it might be difficult to see the connection, the lack of social interaction and fulfilling relationships also impacts heart health.
“It might sound strange to hear a heart doctor talk about love, but people need what we call social support and connection,” Freeman says. “People don’t talk about it much, but people who lack social support or are lonely are at higher risk for heart disease and depression.”
The American Heart Association says that, while stress can harm the heart, researchers still haven’t quite figured out the role stress plays in causing heart disease. Even for those who manage stress well, keeping up with life in our increasingly fast-paced world can still take its toll.
“Treating stress with medication can be difficult, so it usually requires counseling and lifestyle changes,” Peterman says.
3. Sitting All Day
We hear a lot about how important exercise is to keep your body and mind in shape. Studies also show that sitting the majority of the day increases your chance of developing heart disease.
In a 2014 study of how a sedentary lifestyle affects blood pressure, researchers found a strong association between a sedentary lifestyle and an increase in blood pressure. This finding was independent of time spent in moderate to vigorous exercise. A 2015 study came up with similar findings: Sitting down the majority of the day can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and even diabetes — even if you exercise an hour a day.
Luckily, this heart risk factor is easily remedied with increasing physical activity. If you’re having trouble getting started, Peterman suggests technological devices like Fitbits to help you become more aware of your daily movement and motivate you to exercise.
If you think the only consequences of getting the flu are having body aches, a runny nose and fever for a week or two, think again. The flu can increase the risk for heart problems stemming from the inflammation it causes.
Peterman says the flu has been linked to increased risk of heart trouble between the months of October and February. One study published in the 2016 found that people who had the flu were six times more likely to have a heart attack within the first seven days of their condition being confirmed with laboratory testing.
Sounds like your doctor may have more than one reason for recommending you get a flu shot.
5. Dental Disease
Dental health is important for more reasons than a great smile; it can also work wonders for your heart.
Mouth issues like cavities and gum disease can trigger chronic inflammation, which Peterman warns can speed up hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, causing the risk of heart problems to soar.
But not to worry. This problem is easily remedied by maintaining good brushing and flossing habits along with regular trips to the dentist.
How to Reduce Body Inflammation
Freeman says these five hidden causes of heart disease lead to inflammation in the body, which is the root of other common diseases, including cancer, diabetes and arthritis. Luckily, there are four key practices you can adopt to put your body in anti-inflammatory mode and strengthen your heart in the process:
- Eat a predominantly plant-based diet; limit your consumption of animal-based products.
- Get at least 30 minutes of brisk activity each day.
- Make time for a little stress relief each day. Prayer, yoga, meditation or anything else that helps you become more mindful and live in the moment helps.
- Build a strong social network so you feel connected, supported and loved.
“Switching the body into an anti-inflammatory healing environment is what we’re trying to do to get people to heal,” Freeman says.
Hopefully these extra tips will help you take a load off your heart — and your life.
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