In the United States, the most common heart problems are coronary artery disease, hypertension, stroke and congestive heart failure. Congestive heart failure (CHF), one of the most frequent reasons for hospital admission, costs Americans about $30 billion each year.

“CHF can be due to a weakened heart muscle afflicted by coronary artery disease, or can be due to long-standing hypertension, or from untreated severe heart valve disease,” says Dr. Rahul Sharma, assistant director of the Carilion Clinic’s Structural Heart & Valve Center in Roanoke.

Keeping your heart healthy—and avoiding those hospital visits—has a lot to do with the choices you make. Sharma says consuming nutrient-rich foods from all the food groups, exercising regularly, and making positive lifestyle choices is the best way to care for your heart as you age.


“The effect of one’s diet on their cardiovascular health is complicated because each of us metabolizes foods differently,” says Sharma. “In general, poor nutrient foods and beverages with excessive sugars, sodium, [and] trans fats, can further the progression of atherosclerosis and lead to hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) agrees, saying the best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease are a healthy diet and lifestyle.

“Some of the areas they focus on are an emphasis on dietary patterns rather than specific individual foods; in other words, it’s important to generally eat more of the right kind of foods as often as possible,” says Sharma. “Limiting saturated and trans fats, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages, while maximizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry and fish, and legumes, are some of the key recommendations.”

Over the years different types of diets—such as low carb, high fat, or ketogenic—have gained popularity. However, they might not necessarily be the best. The AHA and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) recommend that you consume as many calories as you use during the day—focusing on a variety of different food groups.


“Living a sedentary lifestyle is one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke,” says Sharma.

Cardiovascular health and exercise are closely linked. Sharma explains that the AHA and ACC encourage adults to participate in some kind of aerobic activity three to four times a week for 40 minutes. The activity should include moderate to vigorous intensity.

“Exercise has been shown to improve the ability of your heart and musculoskeletal system to pull oxygen out of the blood for their own enrichment, and reduce the need for the heart to pump more blood to the muscles,” says Sharma.

Exercise also reduces stress hormones that burden your heart muscle.

“On a larger level, exercise helps to reduce blood pressure, reduces the ‘bad’ and total cholesterol levels while increasing the ‘good’ cholesterol, and of course promotes weight reduction and maintenance,” says Sharma. “Exercise also helps to increase insulin sensitivity, which can help to delay or avoid the onset of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.”

Sharma says before starting an exercise program, you should check with your primary care physician or cardiologist to determine what exercise program is best for you.


Taking charge of your lifestyle is a key starting point in cardiovascular health.

“It is important to make the commitments to quit cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption, or use of other tobacco or illicit drugs [if applicable],” says Sharma. “It is also important to discuss and confront personal or work-related stressors so that you can figure out ways to minimize or remove their impact in your daily life.”

Sharma also says a healthy lifestyle includes establishing care with a primary care physician and, if necessary, a cardiologist.

“[This is] important for certain individuals concerned about having underlying medical conditions or heart disease,” he explains. “Those with risk factors for cardiovascular disease or active cardiovascular disease should fully comply with their prescription medications and doctor’s visits to ensure the best effort at modifying and reducing their risk factors and maintaining control of their disease.”

The Carilion Wellness Program at the Carilion Clinic is a great place to get involved. They offer programs in aquatics, fitness, group exercise, senior group sessions and youth services. Additionally, they offer a variety of programs in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, nutrition, massage, personal training, swimming, dance and karate. The Carilion Clinic has locations in Roanoke, Botetourt and Blacksburg.