By Jamie Ducharme
September 6, 2018

Heart problems that were “largely preventable” killed around 415,000 Americans in 2016, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, highlighting the importance of proactive interventions.

Under its new Million Hearts campaign, which aims to prevent a million heart attacks and strokes by 2022, the CDC looked at 2016 data and identified approximately 2.2 million hospitalizations and 415,000 deaths caused by heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and related conditions that likely could have been avoided. The total number of deaths related to heart issues is even higher — in 2015, almost 634,000 people died of heart disease alone, making it the leading cause of death among American adults that year.

“Many of these cardiovascular events are happening to middle-aged adults — who we wouldn’t normally consider to be at risk,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said in a statement. “Most of these events can be prevented through daily actions to help lower risk and better manage medical conditions.”

Indeed, lifestyle changes can make a big difference when it comes to heart health. Here’s what the research says.

Exercise

Physical activity is good for you in lots of ways — but improving cardiovascular health is one of the most compelling. A study published in April even found that physical activity can partially override a genetic risk for heart disease. Meanwhile, a study published in May suggests that exercising for at least 30 minutes at a time, four to five times per week, can keep your heart in good shape as you age.

Eat plenty of plants

Research has shown that diets heavy on produce, plant-based protein and fats and whole grains are good for your heart — especially if you choose plant-based foods over things like meat and dairy products. (If you do eat red meat, research supports doing so in moderation.) A plant-heavy diet can also keep cholesterol levels in check, which is important to maintaining cardiovascular wellness over time.

Whatever you eat, eat it with care: A 2016 study found that mindful eating, which involves paying attention to sensory cues while you eat, minimized some risk factors for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Drink only in moderation

While experts say there’s no reason to pick up a drinking habit for the sake of your heart, years of dietary research suggest that moderate drinking — no more than a drink per day for women, or two for men — may have some protective benefits for the heart. That conclusion, however, has recently been questioned by some scientists who advocate for no drinking whatsoever. Despite the controversy, one thing is clear: Heavy drinking isn’t good for your health. So if you imbibe, do so moderately.

Don’t smoke

It’s clear that cigarettes are related to lung cancer and other respiratory conditions. But smoking is also a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, damaging blood vessels and contributing to fatty build-up in the arteries.

Be social

Social connection is increasingly proving to be a crucial part of good health, and its impact on the heart is no exception. Some research even suggests that social isolation and loneliness may boost your risk of heart attack and stroke and increase levels of inflammation — another likely risk factor for heart conditions. A robust social calendar may help ward off these conditions, and a supportive marriage may be similarly beneficial to your heart, research has shown.

Chill out

Meditation, mindfulness and other stress-reduction techniques have been shown to help lower blood pressure, which can keep cardiovascular issues at bay. Conversely, high levels of stress may put you in peril of having a heart attack or other cardiac event — so hit the yoga mat, go for a run, breathe deeply or find another stress-buster that works for you.

Hit the sauna

The post-workout habit may come with a surprising array of health benefits, according to several recent studies. Research has shown that sauna bathing can reduce the risk of stroke, likely by boosting vascular health and lowering blood pressure by stimulating blood flow to the skin. Similar factors may explain the association between sauna bathing and a lower risk of heart failure and heart disease.

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.

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