By Scott Westcott
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Heart problems? Me?
If that's your reaction when you hear all of the healthy-heart messages during American Heart Month in February, here's a wake-up call: Fact is, heart disease kills far more women each year than cancer does.
It's also true that preventing heart problems is getting easier. Health gathered the latest tricks -- all backed by solid research -- to take care of your heart.
1. Get milk
A new study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found that, among people who didn't eat a lot of saturated fat, those who consumed more than three daily servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese had systolic blood pressure (the top number) almost four points lower than those who ate only half a serving daily. High blood pressure can damage your arteries, increasing your risk for -- heart attacks and stroke. Researchers say low-fat dairy is the smart choice, because it's lower in saturated fat. (Health.com: Simple ways to add years to your life. )
2. Try new moves
Thirty minutes of tai chi -- a gentle Chinese martial art that includes sequences of slow, relaxing movements -- may also lower your blood pressure. In one study, after 12 weeks of tai chi, participants showed a decrease in systolic pressure of almost 16 points.
3. Go fishing
How fast your heart beats when you're at rest can be an indicator of heart attack risk. In fact, higher resting heart rates have been linked to an increased risk of sudden death. The good news is that eating fish can lower your heart rate. In a new Harvard Medical School study, people who ate five or more servings per month of fish such as tuna or salmon (baked or broiled) averaged 3.2 fewer beats per minute than those who ate less than one serving per month. Researchers credit the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, though it's not clear how they help.
4. Hit the juice
Pomegranate juice seems to stave off hardening of the arteries -- and may - even reverse it. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that pomegranate juice reduced the rate of cholesterol plaque buildup in mice by 30 percent. And heart cells treated with the juice showed a 50 percent increase in the production of nitric oxide, a substance that helps fight plaque. There are plenty of tasty ways to take your medicine: More than 130 pomegranate products were introduced in 2006.
5. Sprinkle on the soy
A daily dash of dark soy sauce (not light) in marinades, dipping sauces, salad dressing, or soups and stews can help fight heart-damaging sub-stances linked to smoking, obesity, or diabetes, according to research from the National University of Singapore. The sauce has 10 times the antioxidants in wine, which is also heart-healthy (in moderation). But watch out: Soy sauces often have a ton of salt, which can raise blood pressure. Check labels for lower-salt versions.
6. Laugh it up
Something for your funny bone: People who watched comedy films like "There's Something About Mary" had better blood flow, compared with those who watched dramas like "Saving Private Ryan," according to a study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Principal researcher Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology, recommends 15 minutes of daily laughter.
7. Don't skimp on sleep
Women who sleep less than five hours each night have a 30 percent higher risk of heart disease than those getting eight hours, according to a study from the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Too little sleep may play havoc with your hormones, blood sugar, and blood pressure. (Health.com: Check out the latest medical breakthroughs for the heart. )
8. Breathe deeper
You can lower your blood pressure by taking 10 breaths per minute (instead of the usual 16 to 19) for 15 minutes a day over two months, studies show. Researcher David Anderson, Ph.D., a hypertension expert at the National Institute on Aging, says shallow breathing (more beats per minute) may delay your body's excretion of salt, a high-blood-pressure trigger.
9. Feel the beat
A group of University of Oxford researchers found that slow, meditative musical rhythms can lead to a healthy drop in heart rate, while faster rhythms speed up breathing and circulation. Got Sheryl Crow on your iPod? Try mixing in some smooth jazz, too.
Erie, Pennsylvania--based writer Scott Westcott has a refrigerator that's now stocked with pomegranate juice.