Heart disease is a top killer worldwide -- but our lifestyle choices can go a long way toward reducing our risk. We round up the basics to living well. It may be the strongest muscle in your body, but your heart is still vulnerable to disease. Each year, cardiovascular disease claims over 17 million lives around the world. By 2030, that number could reach 23 million, according to the World Heart Federation. It’s one of the top causes of death worldwide — even in countries that have access to health care and prevention.
Medicine has come a long way preventing and treating cardiovascular disease and saving lives, but we have to do our part too. Lifestyle choices can make a difference in how long and how well we live. Here’s what experts say we should be doing to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Enjoy a healthy diet We often hear that this or that food is good for the heart, but you don’t need to load up on super foods. Experts still say the best way to get those beneficial good fats and essential nutrients is through eating a healthy and varied diet.
Eating well shouldn’t feel like deprivation with heart healthy foods like salmon, nuts, olive oil, legumes, lean meats and low-fat dairy. Foods that are high in fibre also help lower cholesterol. And dare we say eat more fruits and vegetables? They’re packed with essential vitamins and nutrients we need for good over all health — like antioxidants, beta carotene and vitamin C, to name a few. We know what foods shouldn’t be staples in our diet: bad fats (like saturated fats and trans fats), processed foods and foods high in sugars and salt. These foods can contribute to weight gain, unhealthy cholesterol levels, glucose intolerance and chronic inflammation in the body — all of which take a toll on the heart.
Drink in moderation (if at all)
While some studies have shown that alcohol — particularly red wine — offers some small heart protective benefits, but experts advise caution. Consuming too much alcohol can increase heart risk and contribute to weight gain, liver disease, chronic inflammation and other conditions. How much is too much? For some people there is no safe amount — like if you’re taking certain medications or have certain health conditions. Otherwise, guidelines recommend no more than one or two standard drinks per day to a limit of nine per week for women and 14 for men. However, experts don’t recommend starting drinking as a prevention strategy.
Get active (and stay active)
Exercise has many benefits for the heart– such as lowering blood pressure, helping control blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and increasing good cholesterol levels. Experts estimate that people who aren’t currently active can cut their risk of a heart attack by as much as 35-55 per cent simply by getting more exercise.
Aim for a healthy weight
Those extra pounds contribute to heart disease as well as conditions that impact the heart like diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. However, obtaining and maintaining a healthy weight requires lifestyle changes, not just short-term sacrifice. Experts say slow weight loss — about one to two pounds (or one kilogram) a week — is best. Fad diets aren’t sustainable, and your body starts to deplete muscle mass when it goes into starvation mode. If you need a little help beyond exercise and a healthy diet, talk to your doctor. Some health issues like hypothyroidism and drug side effects can impact your weight. For more information, visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Healthy Weight Action Plan™. Manage blood pressure Experts warn that high blood pressure (or hypertension) is one of the most dangerous risk factors for heart disease.
Worse yet, incidence is on the rise. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, hypertension affects one in five people. If you can control your blood pressure, you can cut your heart attack risk by up to 25 per cent — and your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent. Beware: hypertension is called the “silent killer” for a reason — there are no warning signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure checked at least once every two years after the age of 20 — more often if you already have hypertension — and keep up with your healthy habits like exercising and cutting your sodium intake. Control cholesterol Are you within a healthy range? Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have blood cholesterol levels that are higher than they should be — and dangerous levels of plaque could be building up in their arteries.
Atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, is a significant risk factor for circulatory problems, heart disease and stroke. Again, you won’t experience symptoms. That’s why experts recommend getting regular checks — otherwise healthy men should start after age 40, and women over age 50 or following menopause. How can you get the number down? Diet plays a role — and experts recommend steering clear of those saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol and choosing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead. Fibre can also help lower bad LDL cholesterol — including foods with plant sterols.
Avoid smoking and tobacco
It isn’t just bad for your lungs. Smoking also raises cholesterol levels, and it’s a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Roughly 30 per cent of the 37,000 smoking-related deaths each year are heart disease or stroke-related. Even if you don’t smoke, second hand smoke and tobacco use still increases the risk of cardiovascular disease — especially for women. Think it’s too late because “the damage has been done”? Experts say within one year of going smoke-free, people can cut their risk of heart disease in half regardless of how long they smoked. When they hit the 15-year mark, their risk of dying from heart disease will almost equal a non-smoker’s.
Control blood sugar
Cardiovascular disease often goes hand-in-hand with diabetes, and 80 per cent of people with diabetes will die from heart disease or stroke. Diabetes increases the risk of hypertension, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, stroke and damage to the blood vessels. Controlling blood sugar is key to keeping this risk in check. Unfortunately, some people don’t know they have type-2 diabetes or are in that crucial pre-diabetes stage where the condition can be reversed. You likely won’t experience symptoms in the early stages — but it will show up on routine blood work. The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends screening tests once every three years after the age of 40 — earlier and more often if you’re in a high-risk group.
We can’t completely eliminate stress, but experts say we can find better ways to cope with it. Chronic stress doesn’t just affect our blood pressure: it can contribute to inflammation and affect our immune system too. While it can be difficult to avoid stressful situations, there are some strategies that can help. For instance, using effective communication skills and learning to say no can help with relationships. Also, eating well, exercise, relaxation techniques, volunteering, hobbies, vacations and sometimes a good cry — or a good laugh — can alleviate stress. Studies have even shown a link between spirituality and reduced stress.
Get regular check-ups
Despite all the information we have available, we should still leave the diagnoses to the doctors. As mentioned before, it’s important to keep an eye on your cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and blood pressure — especially since you might not be experiencing any symptoms. Experts warn to keep up with those annual check-ups to keep tabs on any potential problems — and treat them before they become dangerous. Regular check-ups are especially important if you already have heart disease or another condition like diabetes or an autoimmune disorder that could after your heart. It’s important to see a doctor if you notice any suspicious symptoms, and seek emergency care if you’re experiencing the signs of a heart attack or stroke. (See How to save a heart for more information.) Already taking these heart-healthy steps? You’re well ahead of most people. Making these changes won’t guarantee a life free of heart disease, but they can help us live longer and enjoy more years of good health. Medications alone can’t prevent or treat heart disease, so it’s up to us to take steps to protect our heart.
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