Heart Month: A Primer for Preventing Cardiovascular Disease During Pandemic Times
According to research, heart disease may be as high as 60 to 80 per cent preventable thanks to modifiable risk factors. Photo: Paffy69/Getty Images
It’s February and that means it’s Heart Month, and a great time for a reminder that while heart disease continues to be the second leading cause of death in Canada (18.5 per cent in 2019) and the fourth leading cause of hospitalization, it is also, for some, quite preventable.
Millions of Canadians are currently living with heart disease, according to Dr. Patrice Lindsay, director of Health Systems Change at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and with the sheer numbers of people getting older the numbers are bound to increase even more.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. “We know that people who are experiencing heart or stroke symptoms have been worried about going to the hospital,” Lindsay says. “When they finally reach out, they’re sicker and more complicated and more difficult to treat.”
Because COVID causes inflammation of tissue, the virus itself has complicated matters. “There’s a whole new population of people with heart disease who may not have had it otherwise as a direct result of the damage that COVID can cause to hearts,” she adds.
Aging population notwithstanding, experts have been seeing improvement in heart disease numbers in recent years as people take better control of high blood pressure or stop smoking — two very important and modifiable risk factors. But between more people aging — a non-modifiable risk factor — and COVID, some of those gains may be lost.
According to some research, heart disease may be as high as 60 to 80 per cent preventable thanks to modifiable risk factors. While modifying risk factors doesn’t guarantee no heart disease, it does make for a healthier lifestyle — one that will offer important protection against all kinds of diseases — and a better outcome.
Here’s What Can Help
Physical Activity: The pandemic has not made it easy to maintain regular exercise. Between lockdowns, working from home, gym closures and stress, it’s been challenging. But regular exercise is one of the key risk modifiers. “Get out for walks — it’s the cheapest thing you can do,” says Lindsay. Get up every hour, if you’re working from home, and move around or stretch. Take stairs, walk instead of driving when you can, clean the house. In an ideal world, aim for 150 minutes each week of moderate to vigorous exercise and strengthening work twice weekly. “That more sedentary lifestyle is truly one of the biggest risk factors.”
Diet: One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that more people are cooking and eating at home. Fresh fruits and veggies are always best, but they’re not an option for everyone. Next best is frozen, and if you do used canned, you can rinse off fruit and veg before eating to get rid of excess salt and sugar. The Heart and Stroke Foundation supports the Mediterranean diet — whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds herbs, fish — and, for high blood pressure, the low-sodium DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, as well as the Canada Food Guide.
Alcohol: In a recent policy brief, the World Heart Federation determined that drinking any amount of alcohol had negative health consequences. For the time being, at least, Heart and Stroke stands by its promotion of Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines — no more than 10 drinks a week for women and no more than 15 drinks a week for men. It’s probably safe to say that less is clearly better.
Stress Reduction: “Stress is harder on your heart,” says Lindsay. “And it affects your sleep, it affects your blood pressure, it affects everything.” While counsellors are busier than ever and therapy may be out of the realm of possible for many, there are relaxation and meditation programs that are easily accessible and helpful. Exercise is also a powerful stress and blood pressure reducer as well as a sleep promoter. “People have been wonderful at stepping up right now, taking care of those around them,” Lindsay adds. “But you need to be able to help yourself as well.”
Get Help When You Need It: One of the most important parts of prevention is if you feel unwell or experience symptoms, don’t delay in getting help. “People are vulnerable right now and they’re scared of everything,” says Lindsay. “But if you’re having symptoms, go to Emergency. They’re doing their best to do it safely.” Ignoring symptoms can lead to much worse outcomes. “You can get into really big trouble and serious problems and then have a more complex recovery. People should seek help when they need it.”
Know the Signs of Heart Disease
- Discomfort or pain in neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Extreme fatigue
- Fainting or dizziness
- Discomfort or pressure in the chest
- Difficulty catching breath after moderate exercise
- Pain in the jaw, neck or torso,
- A racing heart or the sensation that the hear is beating too slowly or irregularly