February is the month of love and National Heart month! Sure, you have been eating healthily and exercising regularly but are you up to date on what else makes your heart healthy? Cardiovascular health is multifactorial meaning that diet, exercise, stress, weight, alcohol intake, diseases, smoking and genetics can have an impact on your heart. Learn about the warning signs and risk factors for a heart attack and how you can change your lifestyle to improve your heart health.
A heart attack happens when there is a sudden loss of blood supply to the heart. The most common cause is Coronary Heart Disease which occurs when your arteries become narrowed by a build up of fatty material. Eventually not enough blood can get through leading to heart pain called angina. Some of the fatty material can detach and enter your blood stream where it can then enter your coronary arteries and block of the blood supply causing a heart attack. Symptoms include sudden pain in your chest that may spread down your left and sometimes right arm or into your neck, stomach or back. It may be accompanied by feeling sick, sweaty, light headed or short of breath. If the heart remains cut-off from oxygen for too long, permanent damage can occur.
Women often experience slightly subtler symptoms than men when having a heart attack. The three main symptoms in women to look out for are unusual fatigue, sweating/shortness of breath and neck, jaw and back pain. You may feel more lethargic than usual and fatigued by activities such as making the bed or walking to the shops yet struggle to sleep at night. Sudden sweating and breathlessness without exertion or that worsens when lying down, often accompanied by chest pain or tightness may be present. There may be pain in the jaw, specifically the lower left area, back pain and pain in either of your arms that does not seem to be coming from any muscle and which often occurs suddenly, possibly even waking you at night.
Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- High BMI/ Obesity
- Genetics – such as a family history of heart disease
- Age – you risk increases with age
- Sex – men are more likely to experience a heart attack than women
- Ethnicity – South Asians and Caribbean Africans are at higher risk
Cardiac arrest is different to a heart attack. During a cardiac arrest, the electrical signal sent to your heart is interrupted leading to an irregular heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation where the heart starts quivering instead of beating properly. Someone experiencing cardiac arrest may not be conscious or breathing. This is usually where CPR and a defibrillator (that machine they use to shock your heart back into a regular rhythm) can be lifesaving. Risk factors for cardiac arrest are very similar to that of a heart attack but with a few differences:
- Coronary heart disease
- Congenital heart disease (from birth)
- Heart valve disease
- Acute inflammation of the heart muscle
- Heart arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms)
- Drug overdose
- Severe blood loss
What should you do if you think you are having a heart attack?
According to the British Heart Foundation you should phone your emergency services, in the UK that will be 999, and rest until paramedics arrive. If an Aspirin is available, a 300mg dose can be taken but don’t overexert yourself by looking for one if not readily available. Don’t take Aspirin if you have been medically advised against it by your doctor.
If you think someone might be experiencing cardiac arrest and is unconscious, first dial 999 and then start CPR immediately.
How can you help prevent a heart attack?
- Healthy dietEnsure that you have a balanced diet by eating food from all the different food groups. Aim for eating more lean meat and vegetables and less processed, fatty, sugary or salty foods. Portion control is also very important in a healthy diet. Here is a link for advice on portion control from The British Heart Foundation:https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-matters-magazine/nutrition/weight/perfect-portions/top-tips-for-portion-controlThe best would be to see a nutritionist for a tailored program.
- ExerciseBeing overweight puts you at higher risk for developing heart disease or other diseases such as diabetes. Exercise helps to reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol which in turn helps to keep your heart healthy. Recent studies have pointed out that the we might be required to do more exercise than traditionally recommended to fully experience major health gains. Initially only 600 MET minutes/week which is around 150 minutes of brisk walking or 75 minutes jogging per week was advised. Now, 3000- 4000 MET minutes/week is recommended which is the equivalent of 12.5 – 16.5 hours of brisk walking or 6-8 hours of jogging which results in an additional 19% reduced risk of diseases such as breast cancer, colon cancer, coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke. This might sound unachievable, but this includes house hold chores, commuting, gardening etc which can be broken down into smaller fractions of your day.
- Quit SmokingSmoking is one of the unhealthiest things you can do for your heart. It damages the lining of your arteries, causing a build-up of fats which in turn narrows the arteries. The carbon monoxide entering your blood form smoking, lowers the amount of oxygen your blood can carry resulting in an oxygen deficiency and thereby causing your heart to pump harder to compensate. The nicotine in cigarettes also stimulates adrenaline release in your body which is a hormone responsible for accelerating your heart rate and raising your blood pressure, making your heart work harder than it should.
- Monitor Alcohol intakeHeavy drinking leads to high blood pressure, weight gain, liver failure and other health related diseases. Chronic drinking can enlarge your heart leading to eventual heart failure. But life is too short not to have that glass of wine or pint of beer. The key is moderation. The recommended dose of adults is 14 units of alcohol per week. To put that into perspective, a 175ml glass of 13% alcohol wine is equivalent of 2.2 units and half a pint of 4% alcohol beer is 1.1 units. So, depending on the alcohol percentage you can have around 6 glasses of wine or 6 pints of beer per week. There should also be alcohol free days during your week.
- Go for a check upIf you are living in England, the NHS offers free health checks for those aged between 40 and 74 years. Otherwise your GP should be able to test your cholesterol and blood pressure on request. If you are over 30 years old, you can take this online test from The British Heart Foundation to determine your heart age:https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/risk-factors/check-your-heart-age
- Save a LifeLearn a new skill and you could potentially save a life. Basic life support courses are available to teach you how to do CPR and work a defibrillator. Make this the month that you focus on you heart health and do something big your community. You never know when you might need it.
- Hmwe H Kyu et al, Physical activity and risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke events: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. BMJ 2016;354:i3857
- The British Heart Foundation – www.bhf.org.uk