Heart Health

Updated 17 February 2014

10 tips that will save you from heart trouble

Eating rubbish? Not exercising? Taking too much stress? You’re setting yourself up for a heart attack. Stop it in its tracks with these easy lifestyle changes.

Heart disease is the number one killer in South Africa and it’s estimated that one in three men and one in four women will have a heart condition before the age of 60. Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, gives us 10 sure-fire ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular trouble:

1. Know your numbers: Tests will give you insight into your risk for heart disease. Keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, haemoglobin A1C (blood sugars) and inflammatory markers.

2. Watch your diet: Research has shown a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and olive oil – consistent with the Mediterranean diet – can decrease the incidence of heart disease by 30%, whereas diets high in saturated fats and simple sugars can increase the risk of heart disease by 30%.

3. Exercise: Two and a half hours of cardiovascular exercise per week is what you should aim for. Exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and other medical conditions.

Read: How exercise can help your heart to prevent and heal heart disease

4. Manage your stress: Stress takes a toll on the heart, increasing hormones throughout the body [that are] associated with the 'flight-or-fight syndrome', leading to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. It can also increase the stress hormones, such as cortisol, which causes inflammation, leading to heart disease. We all have stress in our lives, and managing it is a large part of being heart-healthy.

Read: What stress does to your heart and how to start taking it easy

5. Master the art of well-being: Positive emotions such as optimism can lower your risk of heart disease, and laughter is helpful too. It boosts the immune system, decreases stress and lowers blood pressure.

Read: Why laughter is the ultimate remedy

6. Keep your arteries healthy: Foods like dark chocolate, berries, tea and red wine  help to dilate the arteries, decrease blood pressure, lower cholesterol and prevent clotting.
If there is stiffness to the lining of the arteries, called the endothelium, then you are at risk of developing heart disease.

An EndoPAT test, which is a non-invasive test assessing the function of the endothelium (a thin layer of cells on the inner wall of arteries), can alert you if you are a candidate for building up plaque in the arteries of the heart, which can lead to heart attack.

7. Be aware of gender differences in heart disease: If you're concerned that you have symptoms of heart disease, seek help and the emergency services. Some women are hesitant about getting assistance because they worry they may be wrong. Always be safe rather than sorry.
For women, signs of heart disease can be subtle: shortness of breath, jaw pain, back pain, nausea, vomiting, sleep disturbances or fatigue.

Read: Heart disease causes can be different in women. Here’s what you need to know.

8. Talk to your family: Get information about your family's medical history and risk for heart disease. Although heart disease is due to lifestyle choices 80% to 90% of the time, a significant family history is critical to know,.

If you had a mother with heart disease [when she was younger than] 65 years old, or a father with heart disease [at younger than] 55 years old, early diagnosis and prevention is key. The earlier you know, the more chance you have to change your outcome and be in control of your potential destiny.

9. If you're a woman, consider your pregnancy history: If you had high blood pressure or elevated sugars during pregnancy, you are at higher risk of heart disease.

Read: The risks of high blood pressure during pregnancy

10. Be proactive about screening tests: If you have multiple risk factors for heart disease or a strong family history, get screened... to determine your real risk of heart disease. If [your test results] are abnormal, then your risk goes up and aggressive prevention should start immediately, whether it is lifestyle changes or medication.
Having this information empowers you to make a difference in your heart health for the rest of your life. It is worth getting the information.

Read more:

Red wine really is good for the heart

This diet is rated the best for a healthy heart

It's in your hands: common sense steps for heart health

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