It’s important to note that the racial disparities seen in heart health data are a huge problem—and the reasons for it are complex. While clinical risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes can contribute to this, something else is at play, says cardiologist Mikhail Kosiborod, MD, vice president for research at Saint Luke’s Health System.“Most of the excess risk appears to be explained by socioeconomic factors—what we call social determinants of health,” he says.
But what does that mean, exactly? Research shows that disparities include the lack of access to affordable healthcare, meaning marginalized people having fewer options. It also includes barriers to receiving medical care and paying for medication. Education and job opportunities can also have a huge impact on overall health and well-being, including whether you have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a safe place to exercise. All of these factors are driven by systemic racism, and sweeping policy changes are needed to begin to address these issues.
“These findings suggest that health policy interventions that address social determinants of health are needed, in addition to optimal risk factor control, in order to reduce health disparities,” says Dr. Kosiborod.
With that in mind, here are the three things Dr. Kosiborod wants young people to know are actually within their control when it comes to protecting their heart health.
Take stock of your current habits, and consider making small changes
Your genetics play a role in determining your overall health, but the vast majority of your risk for developing heart disease is determined by your everyday lifestyle choices, says Dr. Kosiborod. Small changes can be especially effective at preventing heart disease in young adults—before there are any changes in your heart’s function.
Here’s what to keep in mind: What you eat on a daily basis, how much exercise you get, and how much stress you live with can all be contributing to your heart health. According to the CDC, roughly half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.
Other risks like age and family history are out of your control, but doing your best to eat a well-balanced diet—opting for lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables—and trying to move your body regularly—even just walking more is a good place to start, says Dr. Kosiborod.
Prioritize sleep as much as possible
Sleep is now considered so important for heart health that the American Heart Association recently added it to its cardiovascular risk assessment checklist. The change was based on new findings that showed adults can help prevent cardiovascular disease by getting seven to nine hours of sleep at night, in addition to being mindful of the other “eight essentials,” like keeping blood pressure and blood sugar in a target range, as well as eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly.
Doing these things can help ward off high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and sleep disorders, which are all important risk factors for heart disease, says Dr. Kosiborod.
Try to get regular heart health screenings
Another tool in your heart-health toolbox? Getting regular screenings. That’s because routine, early screenings play a major role in heart disease prevention, particularly if someone in your family has had a heart attack or if your family has a history of premature heart disease. If that’s the case, Dr. Kosiborod recommends discussing appropriate screening strategies with your healthcare provider. Bonus: These routine screenings also provide you with the chance to undergo other tests like checks for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, all of which can contribute to heart complications and heart disease in young adults.
If heading to the doctor frequently for health screenings isn’t feasible for you, monitoring your blood pressure at home is also a good option. Research shows that at-home monitoring may even provide better insights into risk for high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues than screenings in the office.
No matter how you decide to monitor your heart health, make sure to check in with yourself routinely and take note of anything that might feel off, says Dr. Kosiborod, then bring it to your doctor’s attention. “You can do a lot to reduce your risk,” he says. “And even if you develop heart disease, we have better treatments than ever before.”