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From Hugs to Music: 7 New Ways to Help Your Heart

Photographer Willie B. Thomas
Willie B. Thomas

Yes, we know that eating more veggies, getting more exercise and controlling blood pressure are the most effective ways to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, but new research also points to some simple, surprising ways you can protect your ticker.

Give more hugs Hugging doesn't just feel good - it's good for you. A 10-second hug once or twice a day lowers blood pressure, says a recent Swedish study, published in the journal Comprehensive Psychology, that looked at hugging's biochemical effects. Hugs increase the level of the powerful feel-good hormone oxytocin and cause a drop in stress chemicals such as cortisol.

Keep your gums healthy Columbia University researchers say they have "the most direct evidence yet" that getting rid of gum disease protects against heart disease by reducing narrowing of the arteries. The new study, published in October in the Journal of the American Heart Association, tracked plaque buildup in the critical carotid artery in the neck and found that this buildup decreased as patients' gum health improved. (You know what this means, don't you? You need to floss!)

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Listen to music Talk about an easy way to improve your health - just listen to your favorite music for 30 minutes a day. "Joyful music" can strengthen the heart by improving blood flow, even in people already diagnosed with heart disease, according to a new European study. Subjects were asked either to exercise, listen to music or do both. Simply listening to music helped improve heart function by 19 percent, while exercise alone boosted it 29 percent, but those who listened as well as exercised experienced the biggest impact: Blood biomarkers indicated that heart function improved by 39 percent.

Munch pumpkin seeds and dark chocolate Both of these yummy foods are high in magnesium, a key nutritional mineral that can protect against hardening of the arteries. A new study from Tufts University's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging showed that those whose diets were highest in magnesium had the lowest amount of calcification deposits on artery walls. Making sure you get enough magnesium in your diet could help protect against stroke and fatal coronary heart disease, researchers wrote. Other good sources of magnesium are nuts and spinach.

Get help for constipation Granted, it's not a popular topic of conversation, but moderate to severe constipation among postmenopausal women increased the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems,  a University of Massachusetts study of more than 73,000 women found.

Learn to meditate A recent study is the strongest evidence yet that daily meditation can cause a significant drop in heart attack and stroke risk, as well as a decrease in blood pressure. The study, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, followed 201 African American men and women who had been diagnosed with coronary heart disease. Half were taught to meditate and half attended diet and exercise classes. After five years, researchers found a whopping 48 percent reduction in the overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death from any cause among members of the meditation group compared with those in the diet and exercise group.

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Drink green tea A 2013 Japanese study of 83,000 men and women ages 45 to 74 - one of the largest to look at the effect of green tea on stroke risk among older adults - showed that those who drank two to four cups of antioxidant-rich green tea a day reduced their risk of stroke by about 20 percent and reduced the risk of the most dangerous type of stroke - hemorrhagic - by 32 percent. It's believed that a compound group called catechins in tea have an anti-inflammatory effect on blood vessels.

Photo: Thomas_EyeDesign/iStock


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