Heart attack is a major killer in the United States. Here are the major risks and some tips for avoiding heart disease.
As we age, we should make ourselves aware of things that put us at risk for a cardiac event and know some things we might do to help prevent it.
First the bad news: The number 1 killer in the United States is heart disease and almost half of those are women. According to the CDC, a person dies from a heart attack about every minute. The good news is that medicine is advancing and there are lifestyle changes we can make to lower our risk.
Heart attack occurs when something happens that blocks blood flow to the cardiac muscle and it becomes deprived of oxygen. Usually the cause is plaque which has become torn or has broken loose inside of a blood vessel which in turn, causes blood clots to form. This is called an embolus.
Contributing factors that may lead to cardiac disease
1) Aging. This is something we obviously cannot change but we should be aware of our risk and take good care of ourselves.
2) Metabolic Disease or Diabetes. Diabetics are up to 4 times more likely to have a heart attack and more likely to have a fatal one. Metabolic Syndrome is thought to be a precursor of diabetes.
3) Smoking. Nicotine in cigarettes causes narrowing of the blood vessels, impeding blood flow to the heart. It also damages the lining of blood vessels which can lead to increased clot production. There is now evidence as well, that nicotine can be a factor in the development of insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome.
4) Genetics. According to WebMd.com, genetics play a huge role in the risk of developing heart disease. New studies are being conducted to identify the genes of people most at risk. Some races have higher incidences of cardiovascular problems but the role of diet and habits may also play a part.
5) Obesity. Being obese or overweight may lead to cardiac disease by contributing to predisposing factors such as metabolic syndrome, complications caused by sleep apnea, increased strain on the cardiovascular system and hypertension.
6) Sedentary Lifestyle. The American Heart Association says that being sedentary is one of the highest risk factors for heart disease. In the U.S. at least 250,000 deaths per year occur due to lack of activity.
7) High Blood Lipids. Cholesterol is necessary in the human body to form cell membranes, to manufacture hormones and to help in the production of bile, necessary for digestion. However, it is the ratio and levels of high density cholesterol (good) to low density cholesterol that we need to worry about. Triglycerides, another type of lipid, do not clog arteries but an elevated level may be seen as a biomarker or indicator of risk.
8) Gender. Prior to menopause, estrogen helps decrease the risk of cardiac disease in women, but after menopause, the risk for men and women are about the same.
9) Inflammation. It is now thought that inflammation plays a role in heart disease. Increased blood levels of C-reactive protein indicate inflammation and testing for it is very useful in evaluating a patient’s risk level. Common causes of inflammation can be smoking, stress or even plaque formation which may be seen by the immune system as something foreign.
10) Hypertension or High Blood Pressure. Hypertension damages blood vessels and causes atherosclerosis. This narrows the blood vessels and hardens them, making them less elastic.
How do we decrease our risk?
Just because we have risk factors does not mean we are doomed to have a heart attack. There are many things we can do to improve our health. Making an effort now to change bad habits should be seen as an investment in the future.
Tips for avoiding a heart attack
Tip 1) Don’t Smoke. Smokers already know this. Whether direct or passive, smoking is just plain unhealthy.
Tip 2) Exercise regularly. This is so important that we must make time for it and give it high priority. Physicians recommend at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise 4-6 times per week. Vigorous meaning activity that causes the heart rate and breathing to increase.
Tip 3) Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water flushes away toxins and helps keep the kidneys healthy, which in turn, helps keep blood pressure down.
Tip 4) Get enough sleep. A study a few years back by the University of Chicago, documented that individuals that were sleep deprived had increased plaque in their arteries. It is thought that lack of sleep raises blood pressure and also may increase inflammation. If snoring is a chronic problem and fatigue is present, a sleep study should be done.
Tip 5) Cut Back on Saturated and Trans-fats. These are the fats that clog our arteries. The saturated fats come from butter, ice cream, cheese, red meat, coconut and palm kernel oil. Healthier substitutes are chicken and turkey or fish, olive or canola oil, and low fat yogurt. Sources of trans-fats are things like cookies, microwave popcorn, donuts, hamburger buns, cake and French fries. Watch packaging and ingredients when purchasing these items. If it says partially hydrogenated don’t eat it. More food manufacturers are removing the trans-fats from their products.
Tip 6) Eat Oats. It is known that the fiber in oats helps lower cholesterol, especially the dangerous low density type.
Tip 7) A handful of nuts daily. Nuts and especially almonds (raw and unsalted) help keep cholesterol levels down as well.
Tip 8) Get more Omega-3s into the diet. Omega-3s are natural blood thinners and help keep triglyceride levels down. They also decrease inflammation. Sources of Omega-3s are fish, walnuts, flaxseed, soybeans and spinach. Pork and lamb are also sources.
Tip 9) Physician checkups each year. See your doctor and have your lab work done as prescribed. Lab tests may help the doctor spot a problem and treat it before it becomes serious. Let the doctor know if any chest pain or shortness of breath have been observed. Even extreme fatigue may be a cardiac symptom.
Tip 10) Eat in moderation. Sometimes easier said than done but important nonetheless. Maintaining a normal body weight keeps the risk down for high blood pressure and reduces the work that the heart must do.
What can we do about stress?
We live in a world where stress is unavoidable so we must deal with it. Many people deal with stress the wrong way such as eating too much, using alcohol or drugs or they don’t deal with it but instead internalize it. Every individual is different but stress is bad for all of us.
We can help alleviate stress in positive ways. Some people use yoga and meditation, others find that regular exercise helps them relax. It is important to take control of our environments as much as possible and learn to say no if necessary. We have to be proactive for our own sake. It is important to take time for oneself to read a book, play with the dog, take a long warm bath or if possible, go lay on the beach and listen to the ocean.
There are many ways to reduce our cardiac risk and most of them are quite simple. It is important to pay attention to signals that our bodies give us. Early prevention is key to quality of life.
See related reading about treatment of sleep apnea: https://knoji.com/chronic-fatigue-and-sleep-apnea-treatment/