Harvard Heart Letter

American Ideal

You, too, can be a star where it counts — in the heart.

The American Heart Association wants you to be part of a new reality production. It's not a TV show, mind you, but real life. You don't need to sing or dance or be flamboyant. Just follow the association's seven steps (see "The Simple 7") and you can be one of its American Ideals. That earns you a chance at something better than a trip to Hollywood and fleeting fame: a life free from heart disease or stroke, the leading causes of death and disability in America today. Only about 5% of Americans meet all seven criteria the American Heart Association (AHA) uses to define "ideal heart health."

The Simple 7

You qualify as someone with ideal heart health if you have not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and

  • have never smoked or quit more than a year ago

  • maintain a healthy body weight (a body mass index* under 25)

  • spend at least 150 minutes a week doing moderate physical activity or 75 minutes a week doing vigorous activity

  • eat a healthy diet

  • keep your total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL

  • keep your blood pressure under 120/80

  • keep your fasting blood sugar under 100 mg/dL.

*To calculate your body mass index, multiply your weight in pounds by 703. Divide that number by your height in inches. Divide again by your height in inches. Or you can look it up at health.harvard.edu/bmi.

There's good evidence that these steps work. In two huge, long-term studies, one of women and one of men, those who followed five healthy behaviors similar to the AHA's were 80% to 90% less likely to develop heart disease than those who didn't follow any of them. Following just one or two of the choices significantly reduced the chances of having heart disease.

The Simple 7 are part of the AHA's strategy to meet its 2020 goal: "to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20% while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20%" (Circulation, Feb. 2, 2010). It's an ambitious plan but, with your help, an achievable one. The AHA hit its previous 10-year goal, a 25% reduction in deaths from heart disease and stroke between 2000 and 2010, two years early.

The campaign is a bit of a departure for the AHA, since one objective is better health, not just fewer heart attacks and deaths from cardiovascular disease. The biggest impact for us individually, and as a nation, would come from meeting the Simple 7 at an early age and sticking with them for life. But even if you are 50 or 75, it is still worth adopting some or all of the steps.

The beauty of this approach is that its benefits extend far beyond the heart and arteries. It also works to fight a host of other diseases that were once attributed to aging, but which we are learning are caused mostly by poor lifestyle choices — type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, some types of cancer, vision loss, and dementia, to name just a few.

As part of its effort to improve heart health across the nation, the AHA has developed a comprehensive online resource called My Life Check (www.heart.org/MyLifeCheck). It includes a short questionnaire that lets you know where you are on the spectrum for each of the seven goals for ideal health. A wealth of information and several tools help you develop a plan to improve your health and track your personal progress on that plan.