How Healthy Is Your Heart?

First of all, let me share some ‘heart’ shattering information:
  • Heart disease, usually seen as an affluent society disease, is rapidly becoming a major threat to the developing world. The risk of dying from heart disease is actually many times higher than in rich countries.
  • Poor nutrition, prevalent stressful environment, lack of exercise, and smoking mean heart attacks and strokes are taking an increasing toll on poorer countries.
  • Heart disease now causes 4x more deaths in mothers in most developing countries than do childbirth and HIV/AIDS combined.
  • Heart disease causes more deaths worldwide than HIV/AIDS.
  • The United Nations has been urged to include heart disease among its health related goals.
  • 90% of heart disease cases are lifestyle related and can be prevented.

What's Your Risk Profile?

Risk factors for heart disease are ‘uncontrollable’ or ‘controllable. Uncontrollable risks are determined by age, gender, family history of heart disease.  Controllable factors are high incidences of blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes associated with unhealthy lifestyle habits such as lack of exercise, smoking, and poor diet. The best way to combat heart disease is to know the risk factors that apply to you, and address the controllable.

The risk of heart disease rises as people age, and men tend to develop it earlier. Specifically, men aged 45 and older are at increased risk of heart disease, while women 55 and older are at increased risk (though I have seen younger men and women collapse and die from heart related illness).  While heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, surveys have shown that many women do not know it, and that they are more worried about cancer, particularly breast cancer. It is crucial for women to know that heart disease is not a man's disease. Rather, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women which thankfully is preventable and treatable.

Prevention Is Best Medicine

Improvements in medicine and technology allow people with heart disease to live longer, more productive, than ever before.  Nonetheless, prevention is still the best ‘medicine’ to fight heart disease. As with anything in life, there are no guarantees. You can do all the right things and still develop heart disease due to several intricate factors.  But by living a healthier life, you can stay heart disease for years or reduce its damage. Whether you are already healthy,  at high risk for heart disease, or have survived a heart attack, the advice to protect your heart is the same. 

5 Strategies to Protect Your Heart

Perhaps some risk factors are beyond your control - such as family history, age, and race - you can always control your lifestyle choices. Take steps to avoid heart disease by not smoking, by adopting regular exercise and eating healthy foods. Here are five strategies to get you started.

1. Don't smoke or use tobacco products

According to the American Heart Association, and constantly replayed by the Nigerian Heart Foundation, smoking is the biggest risk factor for sudden cardiac death, and smokers who have a heart attack are more likely to die than non-smokers who have a heart attack.  If you smoke, quit. That is the most powerful, preventable risk factor for heart disease.  The good news, though, is that when you quit smoking, your risk of heart disease drops dramatically within just one year. Irrespective of the duration or quantity smoked, you will start enjoying the benefits as soon as you quit. And over time, your risk will gradually return to that of someone who has never smoked. And if you do not smoke, do not start.

2. Exercise, Exercise, and Exercise

Regularly participating in moderately vigorous exercise can reduce your risk of fatal heart disease by nearly a quarter. And when you combine exercise with other healthy lifestyle actions, such as maintaining a healthy weight, the payoff is even greater. Exercise improves heart function, lowers blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and boosts energy. Exercise can also reduce stress, which may also be a factor in heart disease. The general recommendation is at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week.  However vigorous exercise like running or doing aerobics brings more health benefits than lighter intensity activities. Brisk walking can increase your heart rate giving you a solid workout, while walking at a comfortable pace works well for many people, too. But note that the best exercise is the one you feel good with and can do repeatedly. 

3. Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

A heart- healthy diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods, low in salt, cholesterol, and saturated fat. The diet also reduces red meat, sweets, and sugary drinks, rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a pizza with salami or French fries and deep fried fish in batter with creamy coleslaw again. The trick may be to start by eating a big leafy green salad first, and then you can have one slice of salami pizza, not three slices. Or if you must have Fish and Fries, skip the side order of creamy coleslaw.  That alone cuts hundreds of calories. Experts point out that a heart-healthy diet should be the norm. That way, when you have high-fat food occasionally, you are still on track. Making a high-saturated fat diet the norm is asking for trouble, because it increases the risk of coronary artery disease by raising blood cholesterol levels. The exceptions are good fats, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, that may decrease your risk of heart attack, protect against irregular heartbeats and lower blood pressure. Some fish, salmon, mackerel, sardines are a good natural source of omega-3s. Omega-3s are also present in smaller amounts in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and in supplements.

Following a heart-healthy diet also means drinking alcohol in moderation - no more than two drinks a day for men, one a day for women. At that reasonable level, alcohol can have a protective effect on your heart. Above that, it becomes a risk factor.

4. Maintain a Healthy Weight

How do you know if your weight is healthy? One way is to calculate your body mass index (BMI), which considers your height and weight in determining whether you have a healthy or unhealthy proportion of body fat.  BMI numbers 25 and higher are associated with higher blood fats, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.  The waist circumference is also a useful tool to assess abdominal fat. In general, men are considered overweight if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches, and for women if greater than 35 inches. Just reducing your weight by just 10% is beneficial for the reason that it can decrease your blood pressure, lower your blood cholesterol level, and reduce your risk of diabetes.

5. Get Regular Health Screening

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your cardiovascular system, including your heart. But without testing for them, you probably wouldn’t know if you have these conditions. Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.
  • Blood pressure. 
Optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury. Poor eating habits and physical inactivity both contribute to high blood pressure.  High blood pressure is a silent killer since there are no symptoms. Table salt increases average levels of blood pressure, and this effect is greater in some people than in others. Adults should have their blood pressure checked regularly. You may need more frequent checks if your numbers are not optimal or if you have other risk factors for heart disease.  If lifestyle changes alone do not bring your blood pressure within the normal range, medications may also be needed.

  • Cholesterol levels. 
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the blood, which can indicate heart disease risk. As with blood pressure, eating a low fat, low-cholesterol diet and engaging in physical activity can lower cholesterol levels. Your body turns saturated fats into cholesterol. And the higher your cholesterol level, the more likely it is that the substance will build up and cling to artery walls. The only way to find out your cholesterol levels is to have a blood test.  If lifestyle changes alone do not adequately budge cholesterol levels, medications may be needed.

Prevention Pays

Heart disease is often avoidable. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle does not have to be complicated, and it does not mean you need to live a life of self-deprivation. Instead, find ways to incorporate heart-healthy habits into your lifestyle - and you’re likely to enjoy a healthier life for years.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons.


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