8 steps towards a healthy heart

February is Heart Month — and Valentine’s Day isn’t the only reason to worry about matters of the heart.

Cardiovascular disease is still a top killer worldwide, but we’ve seen hope in recent decades with declining rates of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, that success could soon be short-lived. Experts are now warning that an increasing number of Canadians are at risk.

Can we blame it on the aging population? Not so fast! Baby boomers are only part of the story, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s 2010 Annual Report on Canadians’ Health. Thanks to a “perfect storm” of unhealthy habits and rising rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, people of all ages are facing an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, adults in their 20s and 30s and women aged 35-45 are among the latest groups identified as being at-risk. Immigrants and aboriginal communities face additional challenges too.

“In a very short time, the face of heart disease in Canada has changed to include groups that have historically been immune to the threats of heart disease,” says Dr. Beth Abramson, cardiologist and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, in the report. “But the combination of new groups at risk of heart disease and the explosion of unhealthy habits across Canada have accelerated the impact of these threats which are now converging and erasing the progress we’ve made in treating heart disease over the last 50 years.”

So what can we do about it? Here is how we can beat heart disease, according to the experts.

Get active (and stay active)

We have plenty of excuses to skip exercise — like not enough time or energy, too much stress and too many commitments. According to the latest report from Statistics Canada, only 9 per cent of children and teens and 15 per cent of adults are getting enough exercise to see health benefits. People over the age of 65 are typically the least active age group.

However, there are many reasons to make more of an effort — like lowering blood pressure, controlling blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and increasing good cholesterol levels. Experts estimate that people who aren’t active can cut their risk of a heart attack by as much as 35-55 per cent by getting more exercise. That means making time — and making it a priority — to get that 30-60 minutes of moderate activity, most days per week.

Eat better

Dare we say eat more fruits and veggies? Even in the top-ranking provinces and territories for adequate fruit and vegetable consumption, only half of all Canadians are getting the recommended daily amount. Fruits and vegetables are good for us for many reasons — especially the vitamins and antioxidants they provide.

It’s time to get adventurous in the kitchen and stop thinking of healthy eating as deprivation. Embrace heart-healthy foods like salmon, nuts, olive oil, legumes, lean meats and poultry. Cook up a new recipe or try a new cooking technique. (Check out 6 keys to healthy eating and the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Recipes section for ideas.)

We know what foods to avoid: Bad fats, processed foods and foods high in sugars and salt. Consuming too much alcohol can increase the risk of obesity and some forms of heart disease too.

Obtain (and maintain) a healthy weight

You’ve heard the news: Obesity rates are up among adults and children, and more than half of the Canadian population is overweight. These extra pounds (especially around the mid-section) contribute to heart disease and other issues that impact heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.

Don’t give up on your resolution to get fit. Maintaining a healthy weight requires lifestyle changes, not just short-term sacrifice. If you need a little help beyond exercise and a healthy diet, talk to your doctor and try online tools like the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s My Healthy Weight Action Plan™.

Stop smoking (and avoid second-hand smoke)

In the next 20 years, smoking and second hand smoke will kill around one million Canadians if we don’t “butt out” now. It’s not just about lung health — roughly 30 per cent of the 37,000 smoking-related deaths each year are heart disease or stroke-related. Smoking accounts for nearly 15 per cent of all deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Think it’s too late to quit because “the damage has been done”? Think again. Experts note that within one year of going smoke-free, people can cut their risk of heart disease by half. When they hit the 15 year mark, their risk of dying will almost equal a non-smoker’s.

Control cholesterol

Do you know your target range? Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have blood cholesterol levels that are higher than they should be. While some general guidelines apply, the ideal level varies from person to person. People who have certain risk factors — like age, sex, blood pressure, diabetes and smoking — may need to aim a little lower.

Experts recommend keeping up with regular screenings and taking action to keep cholesterol in check. Eating foods that are low in (or free of) saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol is one big step, but 75 per cent of total blood cholesterol is actually made by your body. We can’t change our genes, but weight and physical activity impact how much your body produces.

Manage blood pressure

Experts warn that high blood pressure (or hypertension) is one of the most dangerous risk factors for heart disease. Overall, the incidence of high blood pressure jumped by 77 per cent from 1994-2005 (the latest years for which data is available). The ages of the people affected are troubling too — among people ages 35-39 the incidence of high blood pressure increased 127 per cent.

Due to a lack of symptoms, many people aren’t aware they’re affected by this “silent killer”. That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure checked at least once every two years after the age of 20 (more often if you already have hypertension) and keep up with your healthy habits.

Reduce blood sugar

Heart disease often goes hand-in-hand with diabetes, and 80 per cent of people with diabetes will die from heart disease or stroke. The problem is many people aren’t aware they have type-2 diabetes, or that they’re in that crucial pre-diabetes stage where the condition can be reversed.

Symptoms are subtle or non-existent, which means that monitoring blood sugar levels is important. The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends screening tests once every three years after the age of 40. If you’re in a high risk group or have a family member with type-2 diabetes, you should be tested earlier and more often.

Lifestyle choices are critical for preventing type-2 diabetes. In addition to exercise and weight management, diet is a key factor. Limiting or avoiding sugary and starchy foods (like pastries, desserts and refined starches) in favour of foods that take longer to digest can help maintain a consistent blood sugar level and prevent disruptive spikes. (See Put diabetes on hold for more information.)

Manage stress

We’d love to be able to say “eliminate stress”, but we know that’s impossible. The best we can do is to try to reduce it — and find a better way to deal with it. Effective communication, adapting expectations and learning to say no can help in relationships at home and at work. Also, relaxation techniques, volunteering, hobbies, a vacation and sometimes a good cry can help alleviate stress. (Check out these 15 stress-reducing songs.)

Already taking these steps? You’re well ahead of most Canadians. Making these changes won’t guarantee a life free of heart disease, but they can affect how long we live and how many years of health we enjoy. Skip them and we risk a downward spiral of chronic disease that can seriously affect our finances, well-being and quality of life. The advice isn’t new, but educators, advocates and health experts alike hope that we’ll finally heed it.

Download the Heart and Stroke Foundation report.

For more advice on heart-healthy living — including risk factors and assessment tools — visit the websites of the The American Heart Association, The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation and The British Heart Foundation.

Additional sources: Canadian Diabetes Association, Health Canada, Statistics Canada

Reviewed and updated February 2012.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Marcela Barsse


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