heart healthy

From flossing your teeth to throwing shapes on the dance floor, health journalist Madeleine Bailey discovers how you can keep your heart healthy in ways you’ve probably never thought of.

We all know exercise and a healthy diet can help keep your heart healthy, while being overweight, smoking and consuming too much alcohol, sugar or salt can increase your risk of cardiovascular problems. While there’s no substitute for this advice, there are other lesser-known ways to keep your heart healthier for longer (and you might already be doing them)…

1. Look after your gums

“Gum disease can almost double your risk of coronary heart disease,” says Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation. “Bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream via inflamed gums, causing wider problems.” Use an interdental brush to keep your gums healthy.

2. Put the kettle on

A humble cup of tea not only contains antioxidants that help protect against disease, but can also decrease fats in the blood. A study published in medical journal Preventative Medicine found that drinking three cups of traditional tea every day for 12 weeks led to reduced blood sugar levels and potentially harmful blood fats, and an increase in HDL, the protective type of cholesterol, which lowers the risk of heart disease.

3. Show off your dance moves

A University of Sydney study that followed 48,000 people for 10 years found that regular dancing almost halved the risk of dying from heart disease in people over 40 and was 21% more effective than fast walking. The researchers partly put it down to the interval-training style of the activity – particularly ballroom or folk dancing, which are all about short bursts of vigorous intensity.

4. Eat more seafood

Danish researchers found that Inuits who ate a high-fat diet had far lower rates of heart disease and heart attacks than people in Western countries. Harvard School of Public Health concluded this is because their seafood diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which lower heart rate and blood pressure, and improve blood vessel health. “People who consume more fish have a lower chance of dying from heart disease,” says Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, professor of medicine at Harvard.

5. Book a holiday

People who take a break at least twice a year are eight times less likely to have a heart attack than those who take a holiday less often, found the US Framingham Heart Study – an ongoing US cardiovascular study started by the National Heart Institute. Holidays can also lower blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease – hardly surprising when stress can encourage habits such as smoking, drinking and poor diet that raise blood pressure. Can’t get away? “Switch off your phone, log off and regularly make time when you can relax,” suggests psychologist Professor Cary Cooper from Manchester University.

6. Keep your friends close

People who have a strong social support network are 29% less likely to have a heart attack than those who don’t, according to an analysis of 11 studies in the British Medical Journal. People who feel socially isolated are more inclined to smoke, less likely to exercise and more likely to have high blood pressure. Joining a club, organising a meet-up or simply picking up the phone to friends can all contribute to a healthy heart.

7. Make a stand

People who spend long hours sitting are at greater risk of heart disease, even if they eat healthily and work out, found a review in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Sitting for long periods affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat. The Department of Health recommends getting up and moving around every half an hour.

8. Get more ZZZs

A regular lack of sleep could leave you with more than eye bags. A recent analysis of studies on 160,000 people found clear links between sleep problems and an increased risk of heart attacks. “Poor quality sleep was associated with up to a 27% higher risk of cardiovascular problems,” said Qiao He, who led the research in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Which means addressing your sleep problems now could have a big impact on your heart health.

9. Check your pulse

It sounds obvious, but taking your pulse regularly could help to determine any heart rhythm abnormality, Britain’s biggest killer. The most common type is atrial fibrillation (AF), which reduces the heart’s efficiency and increases the risk of stroke by up to five times. AF can affect people of all ages, but your risk increases as you get older. Check out the Arrhythmia Alliance’s Know Your Pulse campaign to learn how to take your pulse.

Whether it’s signing up to a new dance class or enjoying a humble cuppa, it’s never been easier to keep your heart healthy.

Find out more about keeping your heart healthy for longer with our 5 must-eat foods for heart health.