While most people probably don’t think too much about the state of their heart until they reach middle age, starting some healthy habits earlier is a pretty smart idea. “While it’s never too late to change your lifestyle or approach to heart health, the earlier you start to make healthier choices, the greater the benefits,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University and president-elect of American Heart Association. “The longer you spend with higher blood pressure or cholesterol, the more damage is being done to your heart and vascular system—and once that damage is done, it’s difficult if not impossible to put the horse back in the barn.”
So what should you be doing each decade to ensure your heart stays as healthy as possible? Start here:
In Your 20s
As you start out your adult life, it’s a good idea not to engage in some bad habits that can stay with you as you get older.
Don’t start smoking or vaping. Smoking causes one out of every four deaths from cardiovascular disease, so now is the time to kick that “I only have a cigarette when I’m out with friends” habit to the curb. And don’t think vaping is any better for you. “Nicotine is really bad for your lungs, brain, and heart,” says Lloyd-Jones. “And the flavors and oils that are used to suspend the nicotine in the vaping liquid are also toxic.”
Keep alcohol intake in check. You don’t need to ban booze from your life completely (in fact, having it in moderation is actually good for your heart). But binge drinking is not so beneficial. “Alcohol is fun and part of a social life, but if you have too much it can have a toxic impact on your liver as well as your heart,” says Lloyd-Jones. “It can also lead to earlier onset of high blood pressure.”
In Your 30s
Think of this as the decade to establish a great relationship with your primary care provider (and your gym!).
Get your starting statistics. Now is the time to learn exactly what your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure numbers are. “Blood pressure and cholesterol problems can be silent, so you want to make sure they aren’t starting to elevate,” says Lloyd-Jones. “Catching problems early means you still have time to intervene before you need medication.” According to the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, high LDL (or low-density lipoprotein, sometimes referred to as “bad”) cholesterol and high total cholesterol are “major risk factors in heart disease and stroke.”
Maintain muscle mass. “Starting in your 30s, you start to lose muscle mass and bone density, which can have major consequences later and impact heart health,” says Lloyd-Jones. Keep your strength up by maintaining your activity level through this decade. Sure, you might have a busier career and more hectic home life, but you don’t need to spend an hour working out to get benefits. Try these 20-minute workouts to start.
In Your 40s
Life got in the way? It’s time to recommit yourself to taking care of your heart.
Get back into cardiovascular exercise. If you cannot remember the last time you did an aerobic activity, then you’ll want to change that. Breaking a good sweat strengthens your heart and improves blood circulation, which results in a lower risk of heart disease and other heart-related problems. That said, be careful. “Understand you aren’t as durable as you were when you were younger—you’re more prone to injury,” says Lloyd-Jones. His advice: Rotate between a few different kinds of activities so you don’t overuse any one muscle group.
Know your risk level. “In your 40s, you want to start thinking about your heart health holistically—so you’ve gotten your cholesterol and blood pressure measured, but let’s think about other aspects of your health and lifestyle,” says Lloyd-Jones. To do this, fill out something called an ASCVD risk calculator (find the one on the American Heart Association’s website here). You fill in answers for things like age, sex, race, whether you smoke, and blood pressure level and see the probability that you’ll have a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. If the risk is high, you can talk to your doctor about ways to lower it.
In Your 50s, 60s, and Beyond
Celebrate your milestone 50th birthday by taking a closer look at your habits.
Limit sodium intake. “We all become more sodium sensitive as we age, so it’s really important to limit the sodium in your diet,” says Lloyd-Jones. “And it mostly comes from processed foods and restaurant meals—not the saltshaker.” That’s why Lloyd-Jones recommends cooking more of your own meals and doing whatever else you can do to reduce your sodium consumption (this blog is a great place to learn some helpful tips).
Move, move, move. “Preserve as much of your strength and endurance through physical activity as possible—you’ll help your heart and also have better balance and prevent falls,” says Lloyd-Jones. “When you use your muscles, you clear blood sugar and triglycerides more quickly and have a much healthier metabolism—that’s why movement is key.” This might be the perfect time to start using the movement reminder on your Fitbit device—it can encourage you to get up more throughout the day.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.