Surprising Ways to Lower Your Risk of Heart Attack

    By Sarah Casey With Michol Dalcourt

As far as scary medical things go, a heart attack is right up there with cancer and dementia. But unlike the second two, a heart attack sounds way more alarming. An attack? What’s with the scary name?

Two reasons, we think. First, the medical term for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction. Say it out loud. It doesn’t matter how serious of a person you are, funny is funny—and infarction is a giggle-inducing word.

And second, the symptoms of a heart attack sometimes don’t seem like a big deal at first. We’ve all watched scenes of someone clutching their chest and left arm, but for many people (especially women), it can start slowly and seem more like coming down with the flu than an emergency. Take a look at this short film Elizabeth Banks put together for the American Heart Association, and you’ll see what I mean.

If a heart attack, in its early stages, can feel like a hot flash, the flu or even a panic attack, maybe it needs a scary name to make sure we’re thinking about it.

The basics: what is it?

In a nutshell, a heart attack happens when we can’t get enough blood to part of our heart tissue. Without blood and the oxygen it carries, the heart tissue can’t function properly and may even begin to die.

You may be thinking, Isn’t the heart full of blood already? Isn’t being full of blood sort of its entire job? Yes. But the heart tissue doesn’t directly absorb oxygen and nutrients from the blood in its chambers. Instead, it relies on a system of veins and arteries to provide what is called coronary circulation. And it is this system that gets compromised when someone suffers a heart attack.

Circulation, explained

The flow of blood through our bodies has two phases. The first phase, called pulmonary circulation, happens when blood is pumped to the lungs to load up on oxygen before returning back to the heart. In the second phase, systemic circulation, the oxygen-rich blood is pumped out to the rest of the body before returning back to the heart to move through pulmonary circulation again.

Coronary circulation is part of systemic circulation. As oxygenated blood leaves the heart via the aorta, some of it gets pushed into two small coronary arteries and into the heart tissue. Deoxygenated blood travels back out of the heart tissue in coronary veins, which empty into the right atrium (where pulmonary circulation begins).

“The heart normally extracts 70 to 75 percent of the available oxygen from the blood in coronary circulation, which is much more than the amount extracted by other organs from their circulations—e.g., 40 percent by resting skeletal muscle and 20 percent by the liver,” the Encyclopedia Britannica states. “Obstruction of a coronary artery, depriving the heart tissue of oxygen-rich blood, leads to death of part of the heart muscle (myocardial infarction) in severe cases, and total heart failure and death may ensue.”

Yes, you read that right: “death of part of the heart muscle.” And if we don’t get medical help quickly, death of us. Yikes.

Heart disease is what we call the damage to our coronary circulation system that can lead to heart attacks. Heart disease happens when plaque builds up inside our coronary arteries. The more plaque builds up, the less blood can get through and the greater the risk of a blockage.

Risky business

Major risk factors for heart disease include the following:

  • age 65 and older
  • a family history of heart disease
  • being a man (men have a higher risk)
  • being a woman (women have less obvious symptoms, so it often goes undiagnosed)
  • smoking
  • too much alcohol
  • high stress
  • shift work
  • endometriosis
  • not enough physical activity
  • periodontal disease
  • stress

It’s not a short list. So what can we do about it?

Staying healthy is all about lowering risk. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about the smoking, drinking, stress case who lived forever or the vegan who ran 5 miles before breakfast every day and had a massive heart attack anyhow. There are certainly no guarantees, but we can give ourselves the best chance possible.

Some things we simply can’t do anything about. If your brother had a heart attack, if you’re older than 65 or if you happen to be male, you’re just at a higher risk. But that means, as the AHA puts it, “it’s even more important for you to manage the risk factors that can be changed.” But with a list so large, how do we even get started?

Easy, everyday ways to lower your risk of a heart attack

Brush and floss: You may have been taking “Sesame Street’s” advice for the past 30 years—or maybe not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a whopping 42 percent of Americans older than 30 suffer from some form of periodontal disease. That’s anything from mild gingivitis to full-blown chronic periodontitis. The impact of oral hygiene on coronary health has been under debate for the past decade or so, but a recent publication from the AHA classified periodontal disease as an “independent risk factor” for heart attacks. So brushy-brushing (with Elmo!) might be the easiest, simplest step we can take.

Except, maybe, taking actual steps. Inactivity is a risk factor for so many chronic diseases, and the minimum recommendations—roughly 20 minutes of brisk walking per day—are so much more powerful than anyone realizes.

One other everyday way to reduce heart attack risk is with breath work. The middle of our diaphragm attaches to the central tendon, a strong cord that extends upward and becomes part of the sac of connective tissue around the heart called the pericardium. When we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts, tugging on the central tendon. This pulls the pericardium into a tighter hug around the heart and improves coronary circulation.

This physical link between breathing and the heart also works with the nervous system to affect heart rate and blood pressure. Slow, rhythmical and relaxed exercise of the diaphragm also reduces stress in the body by lowering cortisol levels.

Try the following easy breath exercises. You can add them to a morning routine or give them a go on their own. Either way, flowing breath helps keep the blood flowing in your heart, too!

4-cycle Kneeling Breathing

  • Kneel on a yoga mat, sitting back on your feet and staying tall in your spine
  • Breathe in for 7.5 seconds as you push your bellybutton out
  • Exhale for 7.5 seconds as you return your bellybutton back
  • Do this four times for a total of one minute

Figure-8 Breathing

  • Stand with your feet wide. Begin to slowly and rhythmically move your hips side to side
  • With your hands in a prayer position and apart 3 inches from each other, make a figure-8 pattern with both hands as you move your hips side to side
  • As you move to your right, breathe out (using diaphragmatic breathing)
  • As you move to your left, breathe in
  • Follow this pattern for a couple of cycles and then switch your breathing, in as you go right and out as you move left

Photo credits: jalopies, Adobe Stock; ThitareeSarmkasat, Thinkstock; sugar0607, Thinkstock; Olha_Afanasieva, Thinkstock; g-stockstudio, Thinkstock.


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Sarah Casey

Sarah Casey is a writer whose work with Institute of Motion (IoM) helps readers cut through health industry jargon and advice. At IoM, Casey investigates ideas and strategies outside of the fitness/health sphere, to discover new methods to support preventative health initiatives. She’s currently exploring how high-value interactions can improve preventative health education and technology. Casey lives with her husband and two daughters near the beautiful Great Lakes and enjoys vegetable gardening and swimming in the summer, snow shovelling and ice-skating in the winter, and a good mystery novel any day of the year.


Michol Dalcourt

Michol Dalcourt is an internationally recognized expert in human movement and performance. He is the Founder and CEO of the Institute of Motion, inventor of ViPR and Co-Founder of PTA Global. Dalcourt has done extensive work and field research in the area of human performance. He consults with many of the fitness industry’s biggest companies and his highly innovative techniques have been adopted by many of the top international fitness certification bodies.