While the health focus in recent times has been heavily on the Covid-19 pandemic and deaths related to it, fatality by other causes seem to be largely ignored by the public, the media and health professionals. In fact, this pandemic year is a sensitive period for other physical ailments, especially due to the lockdown, which has limited people’s exercise, routine physical checkups and other health-related activities. With the lockdowns and curfews in place for quite some time now, gymnasiums, open spaces where people go swimming, playing or just walking are all closed. People are left caged up at their homes, which is conducive to sedentary lifestyles, excessive TV and munching on snacks. All these behaviours can put a person at risk for lifestyle diseases including that of the heart.
Before we go any further, let us look at the statistics related to heart diseases in India. Apparently, India has one of the highest burdens of heart diseases worldwide: 17.9 million people died from heart diseases in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. What is also shocking is that more than half the deaths caused by heart ailments in 2016 were in persons less than 70 years of age. Estimates from the World Health Organisation show that by 2030, heart diseases will be the main cause of death throughout India, accounting for more than 35% of all deaths. This means that last year, over 4 million people could have died of heart-related diseases, and yet our focus was mostly on deaths related to coronavirus.
This brings us to the question of who is at risk for heart disease, and what can be done to prevent heart diseases? Some of the factors within our body that predispose us to heart diseases are high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, diabetes, high C-reactive protein, and obesity.
In addition, there are certain behaviours that increase the risk of heart diseases. These include: eating a diet high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol, not getting enough physical activity, drinking too much alcohol, tobacco use, uncontrolled stress, depression, and anger.
Then there are certain risk factors that we can do absolutely nothing about: these are genetic factors, growing old, being a male, being post-menopausal, and our race. All these factors increase the risk of developing heart diseases. However, despite being in a high-risk group, we can still make a lot of changes to our lifestyle which can substantially reduce our risk of developing heart diseases.
Below are some of these behavioural and lifestyle modifications that we can incorporate to reduce our risk of heart diseases.
Change your diet: A diet that’s high in salt, sugar, saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart disease. Reduce your intake of red meat, oily, fried, salty food, etc. Substitute it with vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and lean meat. Increase your intake of foods rich in vitamins and other nutrients, especially antioxidants, which have been proven to lower your risk for heart disease.
Quit vices: Did you know that smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack as non-smokers, and are much more likely to die if they suffer a heart attack? Cigarette smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels, and drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure levels and the risk for heart disease. Quit smoking altogether because nicotine raises blood pressure, and carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen that your blood can carry. You may need assistance from professionals or deaddiction centres, as tobacco addiction is one of the most difficult addictions to get rid of. When it comes to drinking alcohol, limit it, and drink in moderation. Apparently, women should have no more than a drink a day, and men not more than two.
Exercise: Not getting enough exercise increases the chances of having other medical conditions that are risk factors for heart diseases, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, at moderate intensity. More vigorous activities such as aerobics involving large muscle groups are associated with more benefits. Being stuck at home is no excuse as a lot of online classes and apps are available for yoga, aerobics, etc. You can even skip at home, and if you have a balcony or some open space at home, you can walk there. Get out of the couch and avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
Get your health in order: If you are suffering from any of the diseases that put you at risk, make sure to address them at the earliest. Take regular medication, be in regular touch with your doctor and monitor your blood levels regularly. The tips mentioned above will also help you in controlling your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol, which will reduce your risk of developing heart diseases.
Stay stress-free: Having too much stress, for too long, is not good for your heart, as it can increase blood pressure and blood clots. In addition, a stressed person is more likely to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle to cope, such as drinking, smoking and binging on unhealthy foods. It is therefore important to manage stress. If you feel that you need help in managing stress, anxiety or depression, contact a psychologist or a counsellor, who can analyse your source of stress and teach you ways to cope with them. In the meantime, try relaxation techniques such as deep abdominal breathing, meditation, yoga, and doing things that calm you. Indulge in activities such as gardening, doodling, listening to music, or other activities that you enjoy. In addition, physical exercises, as discussed earlier not only benefits your body directly but also reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Exercising also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. It is also a good idea to prevent stress in the first place by being well organised, by making a schedule, preparing well in advance and avoiding procrastinating.
Despite all the precautions, it is important to stay in regular touch with your doctor and undergo routine tests to monitor your heart health. Some of the heart symptoms you need to look out for and contact your doctor immediately:
- Pain, discomfort, numbness at the centre of the chest; arms, the left shoulder, elbows, jaw, or back;
- Difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath; feeling sick or vomiting; feeling light-headed or faint; breaking into a cold sweat; and becoming pale;
- Confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding speech;
- Difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination;
- A feeling of doom, or anything unusual which makes you feel that you might need to see a doctor.
Remember even though heart disease is one of the leading causes of death, it is one of the most preventable diseases. Death by heart disease is preventable 80%-90% of the time due to lifestyle changes. Lifestyle and behavioural changes will improve your physical and mental health in many ways, all of which benefit your heart. So go ahead, make these changes and enjoy a long healthy life.