Heart disease is a concern for many people but exactly how much do you know about it? Read on to find out what you need to know.
Excess weight can lead to conditions that increase your chance of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. One tool for determining a healthy weight is the body mass index or BMI, which considers both your height and weight to find out if you have a healthy or unhealthy percentage of body fat. A BMI over 25 is associated with higher blood fats, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The BMI is a good tool but it can be imperfect as muscle weighs more than fat, meaning that very fit people can have a high BMI without the added health risks. Because of this, waist circumference is another useful tool. Generally speaking, men are overweight if they have a waist more than 40 inches and women are overweight if they have a waist more than 35 inches. Even a small weight loss can be beneficial – losing just ten percent of your weight can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of diabetes.
When the heart pumps blood into the arteries, the blood pushes against the walls of the arteries. Blood pressure is the product of the flow of blood times the resistance in the blood vessels. A high blood pressure level is important as it may cause no symptoms initially but cause serious long term complications. Some complications of high blood pressure include heart disease, heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, peripheral artery disease, and aortic aneurysms.
The blood pressure is measured using a blood pressure cuff and recorded as two numbers, such as 120/80. The first, larger number is the systolic pressure as is the pressure generated when the heart pumps. The lower number is the diastolic pressure and this shows the pressure in the arteries when the heart is filling and resting between heartbeats. High blood pressure is defined as a consistently elevated pressure of 140/90 or higher.
Heart disease can occur at any age but it is more likely to occur later in life, from middle age onwards. Men over age 45 and women over age 55 are at greater risk for heart disease. Women typically develop heart problems 7 to 8 years later than men but by about age 65, the woman’s risk is almost the same as a man’s.
While heart disease is more often associated with men than women, women can and do get heart disease. Heart disease is actually the most common killer of women over the age of 65. Prevention of heart disease is important as two thirds of all women that have a heart attack fail to make a full recovery. The older the woman gets, the more likely she is to get heart disease but women of all ages should be concerned.
While there are some factors related to your risk of heart disease that you can’t change – such as your family history, age, and race – there are some steps that you can take in order to avoid heart disease. One of the most important is to quit smoking. No amount of smoking is safe as tobacco smoke contains more than 4800 chemicals, many of which can damage your heart and blood vessels, making them more vulnerable to narrowing of the arteries. As well, nicotine makes your heart work harder by constricting blood vessels and increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke replaces some of the oxygen in the blood, forcing the heart to work harder in order to supply enough oxygen to the body. The good news is that if you smoke, quitting now means that you will reduce the risk of heart disease dramatically within a year.
Exercise is another vital factor in avoiding heart disease. Regularly undertaking moderately vigorous exercise can reduce your risk of fatal heart disease by almost a quarter. Combining exercise with other lifestyle changes such as a change in diet will reduce the risk even further. Exercise helps to prevent heart disease by increasing the blood flow to the heart and strengthening the heart so that it can pump more blood with less effort. It also helps to control your weight and reduces the risk of developing other conditions that can affect your heart such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Exercise also reduces stress. You should aim for around 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.
A healthy diet is one of the best things that you can do to help reduce your risk of heart disease. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and low fat dairy products can help to protect your heart. Legumes, lean sources of protein and certain types of fish can also reduce your risk of heart disease. You need to watch which types of fats you eat. Saturated fat and trans fat increase the risk of heart disease by raising blood cholesterol levels. Sources of saturated fats include meat, butter, and full fat dairy products. Trans fats may actually be worse than saturated fats as they lower the good cholesterol as well as increasing the bad cholesterol. Sources of trans fats include deep fried fast foods, margarine, and processed foods. Omega 3 fatty acids, which are a type of polyunsaturated fat, are good for you as they decrease the risk of heart attack, protect against irregular heartbeats, and lower blood pressure.
It is important to get regular health checkups as you probably won’t know if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol otherwise. You should have your blood pressure levels tested every two years, or more often if you have other risk factors for heart disease or a blood pressure that isn’t ideal. The ideal blood pressure is 120/80. Cholesterol levels should be measured at least once every five years – more often if you have had high cholesterol before or if you have other risk factors.