February has long been associated with the heart thanks to ol’ St Valentine, but February is about more than flowers, chocolates and the sentimental side of the heart. It is also the month of heart health awareness.
The Heart Foundation Australia has their Red Feb campaign to get people talking about heart health, and other countries around the world also focus on hearts for the month of February.
So, why is it so important? Well, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in many countries.
In Australia, one in every four deaths is due to cardiovascular disease. This means that an average of 118 people in Australia die from heart disease every day, which equates to one person every 12 seconds. That’s a pretty grim statistic.
It’s not all fire and brimstone, though. There are things you can do to help your heart function better for longer. So, let’s talk about heart disease and look at what you can do to protect your heart well into your golden years.
In this article, you will learn:
- What is heart disease?
- What types of heart disease are there?
- What causes heart disease?
- Top tips for protecting your heart health.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a general term used for any ailments that affect the heart. Under this umbrella, you’ll find cardiovascular diseases (that affect the blood flow to the heart), congenital defects and heart rhythm issues. Heart disease can be hereditary or be caused by lifestyle factors.
What types of heart disease are there?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) includes any diseases or conditions that affect the blood vessels in and around your heart. Often, the problem is caused by atherosclerosis – when the arteries become blocked by a buildup of plaque due to high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes.
Under the umbrellas of CVD, you’ll encounter:
Coronary heart disease (CHD) – this is when the coronary arteries become clogged or blocked with plaque buildup and this can cause angina (chest pain), a heart attack or a stroke.
Peripheral vascular disease – this is when the arteries that lead to your arms and legs become clogged and can cause pain or heaviness in your limbs.
Carotid artery disease – this is when the arteries leading to the brain become clogged, which can lead to a stroke.
Heart failure – this is when your heart has been consistently damaged, either by high blood pressure putting stress on and damaging the artery walls, or by a heart attack or faulty heart valve.
Aortic aneurysm – this is a bulge or swelling of the wall of the aorta and can be caused by many things including high blood pressure, atherosclerosis or trauma.
Rhythm disorders (arrhythmias)
The heart beats according to electrical impulses stimulated by the sinus node in its right atria (right upper chamber) of the heart. When this beat goes out of rhythm, either beating too slowly, too quickly or irregularly, this is called an arrhythmia. It’s not necessarily life-threatening but can cause bigger problems, so it needs to be addressed.
Many heart issues are interconnected and arrhythmias can be caused by cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease and heart failure.
Fast fact: Did you know the defibrillator machines (AEDs) that TV doctors so eagerly use to shock their patients back to life don’t actually work that way? They don’t bring someone back to life if they have no heartbeat. The purpose of an AED is to send a shock signal to regulate an arrhythmia to prevent sudden cardiac arrest.
These are heart defects that you are born with and can include septal defects, as well as various other malformations.
Top tips to protect your heart health
Some things, such as congenital disorders, are beyond your control but most heart disease is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle and a few minor changes in your daily life can go a long way to reducing your risk or severity of heart disease.
1. Nourish yourself
Cholesterol is a big factor in heart disease. High amounts of low-density lipoproteins (LPL, otherwise known as bad cholesterol) can block up your arteries and lead to a stroke and heart attack. A surefire way to keep your cholesterol in check is to eat a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, and healthy fats like avocados and olive oil. Avoid high fat, high salt, high sugar, processed or fast foods. The rule of thumb is that if you can make it from scratch from whole ingredients, you’re on your way to a healthy diet.
2. Keep an eye on your sugar
Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease by damaging the blood vessel walls and the nerves around your heart. Type I diabetes is a genetic disorder that needs to be treated with insulin. Type II diabetes, however, is often a result of lifestyle and can be prevented or improved by monitoring the amount of sugar you intake.
3. Keep your pressure in check
A major cause of heart disease is high blood pressure, which puts stress on the blood vessels in the heart and can lead to plaque buildup and blockages. Ways to reduce blood pressure are eating a healthy diet, exercising, reducing your salt intake (ideally less than 1500mg a day), reducing alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and reducing caffeine intake.
4. Get your body moving
It’s all about the blood flow. When you get your heart pumping, you’re pumping oxygenated blood through your body and removing toxins faster. Your cells are getting what they need to thrive and your heart is getting its workout to stay stronger for longer. A by-product is that you’ll likely reduce your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of diseases like diabetes.
5. Quit smoking
If you’re a smoker, you might not want to hear this, but smoking is terrible for your heart. It damages your blood vessels, causes your arteries to clog and reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, forcing your heart to work that much harder to get your cells the oxygen they need. This can all lead to heart attacks, strokes and other complications.
6. Drink in moderation
Alcohol can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure and weakening the heart muscle. Limiting the amount of alcohol you intake each day can help to keep your heart healthy.
7. Manage your stress
High stress can cause your blood pressure to rise, which can put a strain on your heart. If you are a naturally anxious person, it may not take much for this to happen. There are many ways to cope with stress, such as exercise, meditation, listening to calming music, yoga, reading a book or journaling. You can also speak to your GP about some natural calming supplements.
Your heart is the life source of your body and so, it’s essential to protect it for as long as you possibly can. As you get older, it becomes increasingly important to go for regular heart health checks with your GP, so that your ticker keeps ticking for longer.
A nice by-product of a healthy heart means you get more time to use it for its metaphorical purpose – loving others. The longer your heart keeps up the beat, the more precious time you get to spend with your loved ones, so guard it with your life.