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What is heart disease and how do you prevent it?

February 9, 2022 • read

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What is heart disease and how do you prevent it?

You’ve likely heard that heart disease is both a killer and preventable. But what exactly is heart disease? For a term that gets thrown around, it’s not always clear. Here’s everything you need to know about heart disease, including how to lower your risk.

What is heart disease?

Despite being preventable in many cases, heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, and the number one cause of death worldwide. Here’s the thing though — heart disease isn’t just one disease and there isn’t just one cause. It refers to a number of different conditions that affect the health of your heart and the way it functions — from congenital abnormalities to lifestyle-induced issues.

What causes heart disease?

Your heart’s function is to pump blood around your body. One side collects blood and sends it to your lungs to be oxygenated, while the other side pumps the oxygenated blood throughout your body. While its function is relatively straightforward, your heart is vulnerable to heart disease in a few different ways. Viruses, for example, can weaken the muscles of your heart, affecting its ability to pump and circulate your blood. 

Alternatively, a build-up of plaque in the arteries can constrict the flow of blood to your heart. If these plaques rupture, blood clots form. If the blood clots get big enough, they can block blood flow and oxygen to parts of the heart muscle. This leads to injury or death of part of the heart muscle — a process known as a heart attack. The four valves of your heart can also become diseased, causing them to leak, narrow, or close improperly. These conditions may be the result of a congenital condition or develop over time due to lifestyle or genetic factors.

What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Because it falls on a spectrum, you may have mild or even no symptoms of heart failure and heart disease in its early stages. Symptoms can also be transitory, coming and going over time such as chest pain.

In general, however, symptoms of heart disease will worsen over time as the condition progresses. If you have a history of heart issues, stay alert for symptoms and inform your healthcare team if you experience any of the following:

  • Chest congestion — including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that isn’t brought on by exercise
  • Trouble breathing — whether exercise-induced or not, breathing issues are always a medical emergency
  • Fatigue — feeling unusually tired without reason or having difficulty doing your usual activities due to fatigue may be a sign that your heart is working overtime
  • Edema (swelling) in your legs or ankles — this is often a sign that your heart isn’t pumping properly. This causes blood to back up in your lower extremities, resulting in swelling
  • Rapid heartbeat or heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) — this is a sign that your heart is out of its usual rhythm. Not all arrhythmias require treatment, but it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider as some may indicate a severe problem
  • Confusion, fainting spells, or dizziness — if your heart is compromised, it can have trouble pumping enough oxygenated blood to your brain

What are the risk factors for heart disease?

There are many different risk factors for heart disease, ranging from genetics to lifestyle choices. You can’t do anything to change your genes or your age, but other risk factors are more controllable. Risk factors for heart disease can be divided into the four following categories:

1. Genetics

New research suggests that around 30% of heart disease is the result of genetic factors. These can include things like a genetic predisposition to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being of South Asian, African, or Indigenous descent, or a family history of heart disease. While you can’t change your genes (not yet anyway), making appropriate lifestyle changes can trump hereditary risk in some cases. If you do have a family history of heart disease, speak to your doctor about preventative measures.

2. Having a pre-existing condition

Pre-existing conditions that affect the health of your heart aren’t always hereditary. Other medical issues can also play a part. Research suggests that individuals with depression, for example, may be at higher risk of developing heart disease. This may be due to inflammation which is a marker in both heart disease and depression. 

Diabetes is another condition that significantly amplifies your risk of having a stroke or a heart attack. Diabetes results in high blood sugar which can damage both the blood vessels and the nerves surrounding your heart, thereby affecting its ability to pump blood.

Sleep apnea is another pre-existing condition that ups your risk for heart disease. If you suffer from sleep apnea, speak to your healthcare provider about treatment options. 

3. Lifestyle factors

Cigarette and alcohol intake are major drivers of cardiovascular issues. But chronic stress, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition also contribute. Because lifestyle is the most controllable factor, it’s usually the first recommendation when it comes to controlling your risk of developing heart disease.

4. Being born a woman 

Women produce more estrogen than men, and the hormone has a preventative effect against heart disease earlier on in life. Despite this, women have to worry about some additional risk factors for heart disease that men don’t. Women who use estrogen in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), for example, may actually increase their risk of having a cardiovascular event. 

And while the birth control pill is generally safe, if you smoke, are over 40, or are overweight, taking the pill may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Certain conditions developed during pregnancy can also heighten your risk. 

How do you prevent heart disease?

It’s not always possible to prevent heart disease. You can, however, lower your risk by keeping both your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels in check. Don’t smoke or seek help to quit, aim to get enough sleep (between seven and nine hours a night), and check your blood pressure annually with your healthcare team. If your blood pressure or cholesterol levels are on the high side, speak to your doctor about lifestyle modifications or medication. 

What are some of the best ways to keep your heart healthy?

While it’s not always possible to prevent heart disease, you can decrease your risk with certain lifestyle modifications. Here are some of the best ways to keep your heart healthy:

1. Exercise

Regular exercise can help to lower your blood pressure and can improve your body’s ability to take in and use oxygen. It can also help your body better manage your blood sugar and help control stress. Thirty minutes of exercise a day at least five days a week is essential for overall health, but especially for your heart. One hundred and fifty minutes a week may seem like a lot, but it can be broken down into as little as 10-minute increments. 

That makes it as easy as a couple of laps around the block with the dog. Exercise is for everyone, but if you have any concerns about the health of your heart or a history of heart disease, consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.

2. Eat a balanced diet 

Eating a balanced diet high in fibre is key to lowering your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, managing a healthy weight and lifestyle, and reducing body fat. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are all important sources of fibre, making them crucial to incorporate into every meal. Limiting red meat, fried foods, and refined sugar will also help to keep your blood sugar and cholesterol levels in check. 

3. Don’t smoke

You likely already know how bad smoking is for your health. It bears repeating, however, that quitting smoking, or not starting in the first place, is one of the best things you can do for your heart. Cigarettes contain a number of toxic chemicals, some of which harden the arteries of your heart. 

The number of cigarettes you smoke a day and each year that you smoke increases your risk for coronary artery disease. Smokers are four times more likely to die from a sudden cardiac event than non-smokers. The good news? Being smoke-free for one year reduces this risk by almost half.

4. Limit your alcohol intake

Drinking too much can cause elevated blood pressure levels, increasing your risk for both heart attack and stroke. It can also cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening of your heart muscles. The risk is greatest for those who drink heavily — more than 10 drinks a week for women, and 15 for men. 

As for the idea that a glass of red wine a day is actually good for your health? The jury’s still out on that one. No studies show conclusively that red wine provides heart benefits.

5. Manage your stress

Stress doesn’t just ruin your sleep and your mood, it has physiological effects as well, and they can be killer. Over time, stress can drive up your blood pressure, increasing your risk for coronary heart disease. One study even shows that feeling the negative emotions associated with stress — tension, frustration, and sadness — may double your risk of myocardial ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart). Managing your stress through meditation, breathing exercises, talk therapy, yoga, and taking on less can all help.

Is there a way to measure the “health” of a heart?

High blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke, and a major contributor to heart disease. You may think that monitoring it at home with a home blood pressure monitor may help, but a small Canadian study suggests otherwise. This study found that home blood pressure monitors are inaccurate almost 70% of the time.

Instead, try gauging the health of your heart by checking your resting heart rate. To do this, feel for your pulse in your neck with your index and middle fingers, and count how many times it beats during one minute. The normal range for an adult should be between 60-100 beats per minute. If yours is consistently over or under this range, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor.

Checking your resting heart rate at home, however, won’t give you a full picture of your heart health. If you have specific heart concerns or want an overall picture of your health, your best bet is a general health assessment. 

With Maple, you can schedule a check-up with a general practitioner when it’s convenient for you. The doctor will take a comprehensive look at your health, including your heart functioning, and can even recommend further testing such as bloodwork, if necessary. Get in touch today to schedule a general health assessment and get a comprehensive view of your heart health.

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