Condition Center  |  Return to Main Health Page ›

8 Sneaky Habits That Sabotage Your Heart

Everyday Factors That Can Harm Your Heart

We all know that for optimum heart health we need to eat a healthy diet, exercise and not smoke. But did you know that the little things you do every day can have a big impact on the most important muscle in your body?

We put together a list of the eight habits that may be hurting your heart. You might be surprised how these "little" things add up! Are you guilty of any of these seemingly innocent mistakes?

1. You fly off the handle. Do you suffer from regular bouts of rage or intense anger at home, at work or in traffic? If so, your angry temperament may be hurting more than the people around you. While moderate anger can be a good way to release tension, explosive anger or chronic bouts of rage can increase your risk of heart disease.

A 2000 study published in the journal Circulation found that among almost 13,000 middle-aged African-American and white men and women with normal blood pressure, those who were the angriest had almost twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack when compared to those with the lowest levels of anger. Researchers note that while anger can harm your heart, anxiety and other negative emotions probably also play a role. Anger and anxiety have been shown to increase blood pressure, disrupt the electrical impulses of the heart and possibly speed up the process of atherosclerosis, a fatty build up in the arteries.
Tips to help: Pause and take a deep breath when you feel anger coming on. A simple breathing activity can help, but taking steps to reduce stress—even if you're not feeling angry at the time—are also important.
2. You sleep too much (or too little). Getting fewer than five—or more than nine—hours of sleep a night can hurt your heart because both extremes elevate blood pressure and levels of stress hormones. In fact, the Nurses’ Health Study of more than 71,000 women, ages 45 to 65, found that sleeping five or fewer hours each night increased the risk of coronary disease by a whopping 45%. Those who regularly slept nine or more hours had a 38% greater risk than those who slept eight hours—even after taking snoring and smoking in account.
Tips to help: Try these 7 steps to help you sleep better. If chronic insomnia is an issue for you, talk to you doctor and look into long-term sleep solutions that could help you.
3. You don't floss regularly. You may think that regular flossing just helps keep your pearly whites in tip-top shape, but research shows that dental disease and cardiac health are correlated. Researchers believe that inflammation from gum disease allows bacteria to enter your mouth’s blood vessels, travel into the coronary artery vessels, and narrow their passages. This reduces blood flow, which hurts the heart. In fact, people with coronary artery disease are 38% more likely to also have gum disease. While research is still being done in this area, it's best to keep that mouth healthy!
Tips to help: Set a goal to floss regularly, and track it until it becomes a habit.
4. You see the glass as half empty. Looking on the bright side isn't just about improving your mental state; it's also a boon to your heart. In a groundbreaking 2009 issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation, researchers found that not only did optimism seem to protect against heart disease and death but also that pessimism seemed to increase the risk. Furthermore, subjects with the highest degree of hostility and cynicism were also more likely to die from all causes than those who had more upbeat attitudes. Pessimists were more likely than optimists to have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and suffer from depression (which has also been linked to poor heart health). Cynics are also more likely to be overweight, smoke and avoid exercise. All reason to start focusing on what's good in life, right?
Tips to help: You can actually become a more positive person—if you work at it. Here are some tips to fostering a stronger sense of gratitude, as well as unleashing your inner optimist.
5. You put off going to the doctor. Access to quality health care is an important factor for heart health, but you have to take advantage of it. That means always going to the doctor when you have an unusual symptom, and updating your medical records when your family history changes. Women should also be sure to alert their doctors to any changes in their menstrual periods, as certain conditions (such as polycystic ovary syndrome) can increase the risk of heart disease. In addition, regular check-ups and annual blood work can help you to better monitor medications and help you to track your weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and other important heart-health markers.
Tips to help: Set up a yearly reminder on your calendar to schedule a yearly physical—no ifs, ands or buts about it! Use SparkPeople's Planner to set up this reminder along with an email alert!
6. You have more than one drink a night. While light drinking may be beneficial for the heart, heavy drinking has the opposite effect. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your triglycerides and it can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure and an increased calorie intake, which increases the risk of diabetes and obesity. In addition, excessive drinking and binge drinking can lead to stroke and other serious problems including cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Tips to help: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits. If you don't already drink, don't start.
7. You live or work in an area with polluted air. You probably know that smog is linked with respiratory problems and lung disease, but did you also know that breathing in smoggy air can cause hardening of the arteries over the long term? A February 2005 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that the longer healthy men and women in Los Angeles were exposed to air polluted with fine particulate matter, the thicker carotid arteries became. The carotid artery carries blood from the heart to the head and neck, and a thickening of the arterial walls over time is a major risk factor for fatal heart attacks and strokes. More recent studies have confirmed smog's link to heart problems, including recent studies published in American Journal of Epidemiology and Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Tips to help: Stay indoors as much as you can on days when outdoor pollution levels are high. If you have to be outside, limit outdoor activity to the early morning hours or after sunset. Don't exercise outdoors when air-quality reports are low.
8. You think secondhand smoke is no big deal. While the association between tobacco use and heart disease is undeniable, did you know that secondhand smoke also harm your heart? A May 1997 report in Circulation found that constant exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace or at home nearly doubled a person's risk of having a heart attack. Additionally, in 1992 the American Heart Association's Council on Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care concluded that environmental tobacco smoke is a major preventable cause of cardiovascular disease and death, and that secondhand smoke should be treated as an environmental toxin to public health. No mincing of words there.
Tips to help: Set a smoke-free policy in your home and vehicles. When going out, choose restaurants and bars that are smoke-free. Don't exercise indoors if someone else smokes inside regularly.
American Heart Association. "Alcohol, Wine and Cardiovascular Disease," accessed March 2011.

American Heart Association. "Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke," accessed March 2011.

Boyles, Salynn. "Pessimism, Cynicism Can Hurt Your Heart," accessed March 2011.

FamilyDoctor. "What Is Air Pollution?," accessed March 2011.

Gardner, Amanda. "9 Hidden Risk Factors for Heart Disease, accessed March 2011.

HealthDay. "10 Things That Can Affect Your Heart Health," accessed March 2011.

Kam, Katherine. "Rein In the Rage: Anger and Heart Disease," accessed March 2011.

Preidt, Robert. "Smoggy Air May Harden Arteries," accessed March 2011.

Sternberg, Steve. "Nine factors that affect your heart," accessed March 2011.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Page 1 of 1  
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!

Member Comments

  • Good info. Glad I read this.
  • Excellent need-to-know information.
  • Can't do much about my lack of sleep; I've suffered from insomnia my entire life.
  • Some information is out of date, however I found the information about negativity interesting & useful.
  • So many people I know that I wish would read this!
  • Reading the articles here really help me keep informed about my health and how to have a healthy lifestyle. Love all the information. Thank you. This program is changing my habits and helping me feel better physically and mentally. I have so much more energy and I love the fitness workouts, too!
  • There are some issues with this "sponsored" article.

    1. The vast majority of studies have been done on men's heart health, not women's. So, the data they are using is incomplete.

    2. The flossing thing has just been roundly debunked. In fact, it was recently found that flossing does almost nothing for you. (I know that sounds strange, but that's the research.)
  • SHAHAI16
    I know I need to floss more often...luckily this is the only one on the list I'm guilty of, and occasional insomnia, which I've taken steps to correct. And I don't know if I'd really call them "sneaky."
  • My family has a long history of heart disease. But they also have a long history of smoking, poor diets, low physical activity, anger issues, alcoholism, and generally accepting the fact that heart disease runs in the family and there's nothing you can do about it.

    I'm among the first generation to say, "But what if there IS something we can do about it?"
  • Addendum to my previous comment: sleep, too, is dependent on the brain. For most people, a healthy brain will sleep properly, but many have conditions like REM sleep disorders which aren't readily treatable.

    In my case, I have a CPAP to control apnea, I take medications for my REM sleep disorder, and I practice good sleep hygiene... but two or three nights a week, I only get 4 - 5 hours of good sleep because I wake up intermittently.

    What am I supposed to do? "Hey brain, shape up and fly right!" When there's something organically wrong, it's not a bad habit, it's who you are. The best you can do is work around it.

    Some of this is confusion between thinking of the mind as something separate from the brain. When you realize the mind is an emergent property of the complex organ that is the brain, you realize we have a lot of control, but not total control, over the mind... and not all of the mind is under conscious control, anyway. If there's something organically wrong with the brain, that can't help but affect the mind and body, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes on a grand scale. It's not a "one size fits all" thing, and blaming some behaviors on "bad habits" perpetuates the myth that we are in total control, and therefore are completely responsible for everything we do, think, and express. We have a lot of control, but it's far from complete.
  • I'm with MonaDM1 on this: some of these aren't really "habits", and some aren't "sneaky", as you put it.

    Yes, they are all bad for your heart. However, some cannot be avoided. Living in an area with bad air? Only works if you can afford to relocate. Sometimes #1, "flying off the handle", is a bad habit, but sometimes it's due to an underlying mental condition which may or may not not be treatable. Ever hear of bipolar disorder or intermittent explosive disorder? PTSD can cause angry outbursts too.

    I'd certainly agree drinking too much, not seeing doctors for health problems, or not flossing are "bad habits" (although not flossing is lacking a good habit, not having a bad habit), but some of the others may well be not under your control.
  • Yes, yes, yes, establish a relationship with a PCP you trust. A few years ago, a severe kidney infection sent me to the ER on a Sunday. At the time, I hadn't seen a doctor since the birth of my youngest and he was finished kindergarten at the time. When I saw a doctor for a follow up, she listened to my heart, heard a murmur, and insisted it be checked out. I had been told there was a murmur before but never bothered to go for the tests. Turns out I have a serious congenital heart defect. Most people with that defect have it fixed before they go to school. I was 38. While the defect could be surgically repaired, the damage done to my heart by neglecting it for so long is irreversible.
  • Look up the latest research on Oral health and heart health. You will find that it is indeed linked according to even the latest research from reputable sources. The link goes further. It is connected to diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis as well. All of these are inflammatory diseases. At the most basic level, it is based on inflammation making inflammation worse, just by being inflamed. Then add the bacteria and what it does within each disease. They have found the same bacteria involved in periodontal disease, in plaque in the arteries. Having these other diseases also makes perio worse and increases your chances of tooth loss.
  • I'd like to add 2 things. First, dehydration can also be bad for your heart. While I doing know how much I believe in the "8 glasses of water a day thing" (it sometimes seems like a bit too much and sometimes seems to do my body more harm than good), I DO think it's important to listen to your body, cut out or limit foods and drinks that increase dehydration (such as sodas and coffee drinks with excess sugar and caffeine), and drink water when you feel thirsty. When I listen to my body and drink when I'm thirsty, I feel better and less stressed throughout the day, my circulation seems a bit better (don't have as much swelling in the lower legs when I sit or stand for long periods), and I don't go to the bathroom so much at night (when I used to focus on drinking a minimum of 8 glasses of water a day, I was up every hour going to the bathroom and not getting a good amount of sleep, which we've just learned is bad for our hearts). I've also noticed that cutting out excess caffeine and sugar in drink form helps me to feel better and not so jittery / on edge throughout the day.

    Also, this article is a great argument for taking vacations more often. When we take a well-planned and properly funded vacation (we don't want to increase stress by spending money we shouldn't or upsetting our bosses by trying to vacation and inopportune times), we can relieve stress, brighten our outlook on life, reconnect with the family and even get away to areas with less pollution. We can also make more time for exercise and active outings and get better sleep. So if you're the type who doesn't vacation often (or makes lots of excuses for why it's never a good time to take a vacation), consider your health and the health of your family. Vacations don't have to be super costly or last a very long time, but if you live in a large city and are always on the go, you probably need it more than most. The next time you start feeling a little overwhelmed, why not plan a short weekend trip to the beach or a lake? You can do all sorts of activities that won't make you se...

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites, and A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.