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Steps to a Healthier Heart

February is Heart Month, a time to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health, and what we can to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. As per WHO, cardiovascular diseases are the number 1 cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year. A group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels that includes coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease and other conditions, with numbers that are staggering, and unfortunately, expected to rise, are also preventable.

While we can't change some risk factors — such as family history, sex or age — there are plenty of ways we can reduce our risk of heart disease. Healthy diet, regular physical activity, and not using tobacco products are three top keys to prevention.

Characteristics of heart disease

Heart disease results from the narrowing of the arteries that supply the heart with blood through a process known as atherosclerosis. Fatty deposits, or plaque, gradually build up on the inside of the artery walls, narrowing the space in which blood can flow to heart. Atherosclerosis can start at a young age, unfortunately advancing by reaching the middle age.

Plaque build-up can be considered as stable or unstable. If there is too much build-up of stable plaque, it narrows the arteries, causing pain and discomfort due to not enough blood reaching the heart – this is called angina and it needs to be treated.

Unstable plaque is inflamed and has a thin cap which is prone to developing a crack, allowing the blood to come in contact with the fatty contents of the plaque. The blood will clot to try to seal the gap but in doing so, the blood clot blocks the artery. This prevents the flow of blood to the heart, cuts off its oxygen supply and damages or kills the heart cells. This is a heart attack.

Lifestyle changes

As per Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, 8 in 10 cases of premature heart disease and stroke cases are preventable through healthy lifestyle behaviours we can control - high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, stress, excessive alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and being overweight. Whether there is a history of heart disease in your family, or you simply want to live a healthier, longer life, these relatively simple lifestyle tips are ideal for supporting cardiovascular health and overall wellness:

  • Get regular health screenings. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage heart and blood vessels and without testing for them, we may probably not know whether we even have these conditions. Regular screening should include the blood pressure screenings, checking the cholesterol levels, and having the type 2 diabetes screening.

  • Stop Smoking. With all the information we have available today, if you still smoke, now is the time to stop. If you don’t smoke, be careful never ever to start. Smoking is one of the most damaging things one can do for our hearts as the effects are notoriously difficult to reverse. According to recent statistics, smoking is the cause of more than 440,000 cases of premature death annually. In addition to putting people at risk of developing heart disease, smoking also increases the risk of cancer and lung problems.

  • Eat a Healthy Diet. Healthy eating is one of the best choices you can make to care for your heart, and can help control many of the challenges that impact heart health. A heart-healthy diet is one that is low in cholesterol and saturated fat, rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limits salty or sugary snack foods. One example is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. And, not in any way replacing a healthy eating, few dietary supplements have also been scientifically studied to complement a heart-healthy diet - plant sterols, or phytosterols, which are shown to support healthy cholesterol levels, fish oil omega-3 fatty acids, as well as Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10.

  • Get and Stay Active. They say that for those searching for the fountain of youth, exercise is the next best thing. Just keep moving! Exercising regularly and avoiding being sedentary are two of the best things we can do for our hearts - and the best thing is, exercise is free! There’s no need to train for an ultramarathon (unless you want to) or to spend your next paycheck on an expensive home gym - in fact, it’s much more sustainable to incorporate physical activity into your day in such a way that exercise feels almost effortless. To be heart smart, aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week - a 30-minute walk five days a week, three 50-minute bike rides, or any combination of activities you enjoy and that work up a bit of a sweat. The key thing is to get moving and keep moving, whatever your age and current fitness level!

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing weight changes our body’s balance of calories consumed to calories expended. If we lose a bit of weight, it helps our bodies function better and reduces strain on our heart. The American Heart Association reports that bodies in a healthy weight range circulate blood more efficiently, have an easier time managing fluid levels, and are less at risk for conditions like cancer, diabetes, sleep apnea, and, yes, heart disease. While eating well and exercising regularly will help you lose weight, it’s also wise to talk with your doctor to develop a unique weight loss plan that is healthy and sustainable for you.

  • Limit alcohol consumption. While it’s true that very moderate amounts of alcohol can have heart protective benefits, going overboard can have disastrous effects. Following guidelines can assist - EverydayHealth suggest that heart-healthy drinking is incredibly moderate. While a 5 oz. glass of wine with dinner or a 12 oz. beer can give your heart a bit of a boost, going over more than one drink a day will have opposite effects. It is also suggested to stay away from the sugary drinks that, in addition to packing excess calories, sugary drinks like cocktails made with syrup or blended margaritas can spike blood sugar levels and wear down our teeth.

  • Keep blood pressure in a healthy range. High blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, and should be treated accordingly. While taking blood pressure medication if one has chronically high blood pressure, it is possible to keep it within normal ranges without medication for many people. Things that contribute to overall heart health will also help with this too - losing weight, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet.

  • Reduce stress. Stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat, a response – a racing heart, tense muscles and sweating – that is meant to get us ready for some kind of action and out of harm’s way. Stress is unfortunately one of those things that can have a disastrous effect on virtually all aspects of our health – from destroying your happiness and mental wellbeing to putting you at increased risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety. To keep our hearts healthy and strong, it’s critical to limit the stressors in our lives. Effective stress management allows us to take a break from the stressors that cause anxiety, helping us focus on positive, healthy habits instead. Please do keep in mind that chronic stress or stress that is giving way to anxiety or depression may require an appointment with a doctor.

Prevention is the key to keeping your heart in top shape and pumping the way that it should.

Give your own heart a little love each and every day by making smart diet and lifestyle choices.

Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment of conditions that should be interpreted and managed by a qualified health care provider.

Additional resources: The Heart and Stroke Foundation offers several tools for making healthy lifestyle choices that support your heart health including:

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