ABCs of Preventing Heart Disease, Stroke and Heart Attack

Sounds simple doesn’t it? So why is coronary heart disease the single major cause of death and stroke the No. 3 killer in the U.S.? One reason is undeniably a lack of commitment to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Your lifestyle is not only your best defense against heart disease and stroke, it’s also your responsibility. A heart-healthy lifestyle includes the ideas listed in the heart below. By following these three simple steps you can reduce all of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease, heart attack and stroke including:

Stop smoking. If you smoke, quit. If someone in your household smokes, encourage them to quit. We know it’s tough. But it’s tougher to recover from a heart attack or stroke or to live with chronic heart disease. Commit to quit. We’re here to help if you need it.

Learn more about smoking and cardiovascular disease

Visit our Quitting Smoking area for plans, tips and tools to help you quit

Choose good nutrition.  A healthy diet is one of the best weapons you have to fight cardiovascular disease. The food you eat (and the amount) can affect other controllable risk factors: cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and overweight. Choose nutrient-rich foods — which have vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients but are lower in calories — over nutrient-poor foods. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole-grain and high-fiber foods, fish, lean protein and fat-free or low-fat dairy products is the key. And to maintain a healthy weight, coordinate your diet with your physical activity level so you're using up as many calories as you take in.

Visit our Diet and Nutrition Web site

Select American Heart Association cookbooks

Reduce blood cholesterol. Fat lodged in your arteries is a disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later it could trigger a heart attack or stroke. You’ve got to reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get moving. If diet and physical activity alone don’t get those numbers down, then medication may be the key. Take it just like the doctor orders.  Here’s the lowdown on where those numbers need to be: 

Total Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL (bad) Cholesterol:

  • Low risk for heart disease: Less than 160 mg/dL
  • Intermediate risk for heart disease: Less than 130 mg/dL
  • High risk for heart disease including those with heart disease or diabetes: Less than 100mg/dL

HDL (good) Cholesterol: 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women
Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Visit our Cholesterol Web site

Get your free personalized cholesterol treatment options report from the Heart Profilers

Lower high blood pressure. It’s the single largest risk factor for stroke. Stroke is the No. 3 killer and one of the leading causes of disability in the United States. Stroke recovery is difficult at best and you could be disabled for life. Shake that salt habit, take your medications as recommended by your doctor and get moving. Those numbers need to get down and stay down. Your goal is less than 120/80 mmHg.

Visit our High Blood Pressure Web site

Take our Blood Pressure Risk Assessment

Get your free personalized high blood pressure treatment options report from the Heart Profilers

Use our Blood Pressure Management Center to track your progress

Be physically active every day. Research has shown that getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity on 5 or more days of the week can help lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and keep your weight at a healthy level. But something IS better than nothing. If you’re doing nothing now, start out slow. Even 10 minutes at a time may offer some health benefits. Studies show that people who have achieved even a moderate level of fitness are much less likely to die early than those with a low fitness level.

Visit our Physical Activity and Fitness Web site

Start! a walking program

Choose To Move: our free 12-week physical activity program for women

Aim for a healthy weight. Obesity is an epidemic in America, not only for adults but also for children. An epidemic is when a health problem is out of control and many people are affected by it. Fad diets and supplements are not the answer. Good nutrition, controlling calorie intake and physical activity are the only way to maintain a healthy weight. Obesity places you at risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and insulin resistance, a precursor of type 2 diabetes — the very factors that heighten your risk of cardiovascular disease. Your Body Mass Index (BMI) can help tell you if your weight is healthy.

Visit our Weight Management Web site

Calculate your Body Mass Index

Manage diabetes. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related death. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease due to a variety of risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity.

Visit our Heart of Diabetes Web site

Reduce stress. Some scientists have noted a relationship between coronary heart disease risk and stress in a person's life that may affect the risk factors for heart disease and stroke. For example, people under stress may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would. Research has even shown that stress reaction in young adults predicts middle-age blood pressure risk.

Get stress management tips and tools

Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and lead toheart failure or stroke. It can contribute to high triglycerides, produce irregular heartbeats and affect cancer and other diseases. It contributes to obesity, alcoholism, suicide and accidents. The risk of heart disease in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (an average of one drink for women or two drinks for men per day) is lower than in nondrinkers. However, it’s not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or that drinkers increase the amount they drink.

Read our recommendation on alcohol, wine and cardiovascular disease

Learn about major risk factors that can't be changed.


This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated 03/20/08.

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Smokers have more than twice the risk of heart attack as nonsmokers.  Smoking is a major risk factor for stroke, too.

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