For many cultures, the heart is considered the core—the center, the soul and the home for the emotions. It is also the muscular organ that moves the blood throughout the body carrying vital nutrients and oxygen needed by every cell of the body.
Gender and the Heart
Heart disease is a major cause of illness and death in both men and women—but it generally appears about 10 years later in women and is often missed. The misperception is that women are somewhat protected against heart disease due to higher levels of estrogen in pre-menopausal women. The risk of mid-life heart disease is decreasing in men, yet is rising in women. In addition, men and women often experience the symptoms of a heart attack differently. Some of the symptoms—such as pain, tightness or pressure in the chest, sweating, shortness of breath, a sense of nausea or heartburn and pain spreading to the shoulders, arms, neck or jaw may often be similar. However, many women (and men) have atypical symptoms—in many men, for example, the pain can move into the left arm but for many women, the pain can move into the right arm. Some women (and some men) experience what is known as a “silent” heart attack—which means they don’t experience any pain at all, and sometimes just a vague discomfort or a “feeling” or sense that something just doesn’t feel quite right.
Types of Heart Disease
The phrase “heart disease” covers many different conditions. These can include:
- Coronary artery disease (CAD)—damage to the blood vessels that supply the heart.
- Heart attacks—these can be also called cardiac arrest or a myocardial infarction (MI). This is the sudden loss of heart function and can be due to a number of causes such as a blood clot or a sudden loss of blood.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD) occurs when damage to the blood vessels affects the arms and legs.
- Stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted because of a blood clot or a bleeding blood vessel.
- High blood pressure (hypertension) occurs when the force of pressure of the blood within the blood vessels is too high, often forcing the heart to work too hard.
- Arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal rhythm of the heart. Arrhythmias can cause heart attacks and strokes.
- Congestive heart failure occurs when the blood cannot effectively pump the blood throughout the body.
- Congenital or inborn abnormalities in the heart.
- Artherosclerosis used to be commonly known as “hardening of the arteries” and occurs when material known as plaque builds up inside the arteries—this narrows the arteries and often leads to high blood pressure.
- Heart valve problems. The heart has four valves that direct blood flow through the four chambers of the heart—when these do not open or close properly, the condition may result in poor blood flow and inefficient pumping by the heart.
Preventing Heart Disease
There are a number of steps you can take to prevent heart disease—a series of “do’s” and “don’ts”. There is no guarantee, of course—the risk of heart disease depends on a number of factors that you may have no control over—your gender, your family history, the existence of structural defects in the heart, for example. There are a number of factors that you CAN control, however. These are the important “do’s” and “don’ts”.
- Eat a healthy diet by:
- Increasing the vegetables, berries and fruits in your diet
- Increasing the amount of omega-3 fish in your diet
- Including beans and legumes
- Including whole grains (if tolerated)
- Including healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil etc.
- Including nuts and seeds (especially raw)
- Drinking lots of pure water (a minimum of half your weight in ounces)
- Processed and junk foods
- Fatty foods
- Salty foods
- Red meat
- Trans fat (if the label on a food says either “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated,”—it is likely to have trans fats in it).
- This can be difficult for those with busy schedules, but worth making the time as the health benefits far outweigh the sacrifice. If you simply can’t make time, try spreading out exercise throughout the day. If your job requires sitting at a desk, try to do some things while standing (eg. talking on the phone, eating lunch, walk to talk instead of call co-workers etc). Take walks around the office—or the office building during lunch or breaks and it would be a great idea to invest in a standing workstation.
- Exercise can mean a gym membership—but it doesn’t have to—walking can work very well for most people. Try to get around 20-30 minutes a day of some kind of cardio (heart pumping) exercise—you can try parking the car further away from the office or the store, using the stairs rather than the elevator and just walking to a local store rather than driving.
- Maintain a healthy weight—This is done by doing the same things that help your heart, so you get twice the benefit.
- Don’t ignore potential symptoms—if anything feels “off”, get yourself checked
- Don’t ignore the value of family and friends—people who stay social tend to have less heart disease
- Don’t procrastinate your health—stay on top of it by getting your blood pressure checked, your blood labs done and by getting regular physicals.
Eating a healthy diet—eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, whole grains and healthy oils while avoiding red meat, fatty meat, processed foods and junk foods—can help prevent heart disease. Getting exercise, staying fit and maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent heart disease. In addition, research has made it clear that getting enough fun, rest and sleep can make a significant difference in your risk of heart disease….so, remember to eat, live, rest, sleep…and love, to stay heart healthy.