Every February, organizations across the world celebrate National Heart Month, raising awareness about heart diseases and conditions. The first Friday of the month sees thousands across the country getting ‘reddy’ to wear red and fundraising for the British Heart Foundation and their fantastic research projects.
And why not celebrate this fantastic organ? Your ticker works hard every second of every minute to keep you up and moving, and that includes pumping over 7,5000 litres of blood around your body every day. But heart health is for life, not just for February. Millions of people are currently fighting a cardiovascular disease and every day in the UK, 400 people will lose that battle. The saddest fact is that a lot of these conditions can be improved or even eradicated by keeping on the pulse when it comes to heart health, and making just a few easily manageable adjustments.
What’s going on in there?
A twinge in your heart or chest area can be a worrying thing, and sometimes we can too quickly jump to the most dramatic conclusions. Don’t know your angina from your aneurysm? Here’s a simplified explanation of some of the most common heart conditions, how they come about, and what to do about them:
Abdominal aortic aneurysm: when the aorta swells.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is diagnosed through an ultrasound, CT or MRI scan, and can be solved with surgical repair. A cause is not exactly known, but certainly keeping on top of your heart health will help to lower your risk of developing AAA.
Arrhythmia: when your heart us abnormal.
This could mean that the rhythm of your heartbeat is either too fast, too slow or simply irregular. Arrhythmia can be treated with medication, a procedure, or in more extreme cases, a pacemaker. Atrial fibrillation, a form of abnormal heart rhythm, can be checked simply by feeling your own pulse. If you are concerned about your heart rhythm, it is important to speak to your doctor as over time, it could lead to blood clotting, or stroke.
Angina: when the arteries become narrow.
Usually caused by coronary heart disease, this means it is more difficult for both blood and oxygen to get to the heart. Symptoms of angina are often brought on by physical activity, an emotional upset, cold weather or after a meal, and subside within a few minutes. There is medication available, but many people are able to live their everyday lives with angina, simply by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Atherosclerosis: when fatty material builds up inside your arteries.
Over time, this could lead to angina, heart attack, stroke or peripheral arterial disease (when blood can’t get to your leg muscles). Atherosclerosis is very common, mostly in over 65s and people with a history of heart disease in their family. Your risk is also heightened if you smoke, have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or are overweight or not physically active. Currently atherosclerosis cannot be stopped or reversed, but there are treatments and medications available.
Heart attack: when your heart is starved of oxygen-rich blood.
Starting with coronary heart disease, if a piece of fatty build-up breaks off from your arteries and causes a blockage, it will cut off the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, and this is the heart attack. A heart attack is what most people fear when they feel pain in the chests, and for good reason. Heart attacks are life threatening, and therefore shouldn’t be taken lightly. No two heart attacks are the same; some can have mild symptoms, and some severe. These will include tightness, heaviness or a pain in your chest, possibly spreading to the arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach, as well as sweating, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or shortening of breath. There are many ways medical professionals can test for a heart attack, including examining your heart rate, blood pressure, and carrying out an electrocardiogram (ECG). Time is of the essence when it comes to a heart attack, so if you’re concerned that you’re having one, no matter how small the pain, you must call 999 immediately for medical attention.
Stroke: when blood is cut off from the brain.
Like angina and heart attacks, a stroke can also be caused by atherosclerosis. There are two types of stroke: ischaemic, when there is a block in the artery to your brain, and haemorrhagic, when a blood vessel bursts or bleeds into the brain, causing damage to the tissue and cells. Without blood, the brain can be damaged, which can effect the way that both your body and mind function. Spotting a stroke can be done in a few simple steps; make sure to check for facial weakness, arm weakness and speech problems. Just like a heart attack, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you are concerned. Even if it is just a mini-stroke or TIA (transient ischaemic attack), when a temporary blockage occurs and symptoms will pass in 24 hours, it is much better to be overly cautious.
Keeping your ticker tip-top!
The great news is that all of these conditions, not matter how big or small, can be avoided by taking the same steps into consideration. A happier heart means a happy you all over, so make sure to get these elements sorted.
Your heart, under pressure
High blood pressure is hard to notice, and there are currently around seven million people in the UK living with it, undiagnosed. When a doctor or nurse measures your blood pressure, your result produces two numbers. The first number means the highest level your blood pressure reaches when your heart contracts and pumps blood through your arteries. The second is the lowest level your blood pressure reaches when your heart relaxes. Ideally, your blood pressure should be below 140/90mmHg (often said as “140 over 90”). If it is too high then over time, your heart may become enlarged and the pump less effective. Good diet and exercise are great ways to lower your blood pressure, including reducing your salt intake and cutting down on alcohol. If you have to eat ready-made foods, look out for the salt content. The maximum daily recommended allowance for adults is 6g. Did you know that drinking more than 15 units at once could affect how your heart beats, and potentially put you at risk of a heart attack or stroke? Regular drinking can also weaken your heart. See our article about how to cut down on drinking alcohol here.
Control your cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance which the liver makes from the saturated fats that we eat. It also exist in some types of foods too. It’s important to have cholesterol in the body as it makes your cells work properly, but having too much can cause atherosclerosis and increase your risk of major coronary heart disease. Cholesterol levels can be measured with a blood sample or simple finger prick and if you’re found to have high cholesterol, there are some simple solutions. Lowering your intake of both saturated and trans fats is a great start. These can be found mainly in processed foods like cakes, fast foods and spreads. Instead, try eating foods that contain healthier fats, like natural oils, avocados, oily fish and nuts and seeds. To decrease your cholesterol levels further, eat more high-fibre foods or introduce some soya into your diet. Some dairy products will also be labeled as cholesterol-lowering, and will contain plant stanols and sterols.
I heart fitness
The British Heart Foundation suggests that to keep a healthy heart, you should aim to complete 150 minutes of activity a week, but that every 10 minutes you can do towards that amount counts. Great exercises for cardio-health include swimming (that’s lanes, not paddling in the shallow end!), running (especially in intervals), cycling, and even yoga and Pilates. If you’re a gym bunny, have a go at picking up some weights, or try one of our exercises drawn out in our plan below, tailored to help give you a healthy heart.
Sizing up your situation
Through a good diet and activity, you’ll find it much easier to keep a healthy weight, which is essential for heart health. When we carry excess weight, it puts extra strain on our heart, making it more difficult to function. It’s not just weight to look out for, but your body’s measurements too. Ever heard that carrying weight around your middle is the most dangerous place? Ideally if you’re a woman, your waist should measure below 80cm (32 inches) and for a man, 94cm (37 inches). This is lower for South Asian men (35 inches) as they are naturally more at risk.
Stub it out for an instant improvement
Giving up smoking is the single most important thing you can do if you want to be healthier, says the British Heart Foundation, especially when that comes to your heart. Every time someone smokes a cigarette, the 4,000 chemicals contained in tobacco enters their lungs and gets into the bloodstream and body tissues, increasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease and cancer. These chemicals can damage the lining of the arteries, and block them up. 22,000 smokers die from cardiovascular disease every year, but the good news is that no matter how long you’ve been smoking for, giving up with improve your health straight away. Within hours your heart rate and blood pressure will resume to normal, with the nicotine and carbon monoxide leaving your body and being replaced by oxygen, and once you’ve reached a year without lighting up, your risk of coronary heart disease will be half that of a smoker. So however old you are, or however regular a smoker, put that cigarette down!
Keep calm and stress no more
Stress isn’t directly linked to heart health, but it’s much more a case of getting your mind in gear in order to reap the cardiovascular benefits. If you cope badly with stress, you’re likely to develop bad habits to combat the stress that will have a negative effect on your body and heart. Find your way of relaxing, even if it means changing your lifestyle or life at work. This could be by introducing better eating, fitness, meditation or talking to your manager.
Nutrition + Fitness = overal prevention
February is also National Cancer Prevention Month in the United States. Although it is likely to differ between different types of cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research gives three guidelines for cancer prevention, which are similar to those detailed above:
1. Choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat and avoid processed meat
2. Be physically activity every day in any way for 30 minutes or more
3. Aim to be a healthy weight throughout life
So, get your heart in the right place – fit, healthy and happy – and the rest will follow.