February is Heart Month, a time for each of us to consider whether or not we're doing enough to protect our circulatory system, regardless of age, and an opportunity to review the symptoms, risk factors, and preventative approaches to heart disease.
It's scary to think about, but heart disease is the number one killer in North America accounting for 43% of all deaths. Sadly, 50% die from the first heart attack - and most are not aware of their condition until a heart attack occurs.
There is strong evidence that we can reduce our risk of heart disease by taking a preventative approach, but what does that mean?
First of all, we must do our very best to avoid the major risk factors within our realm of control:
· poor diet
· lack of exercise
· excessive stress
Diabetes and hypertension pose an indirect risk but can be controlled with careful monitoring. In fact, heredity is the only factor over which we have limited influence.
Body fat is one of the most ‘weighty’ risk factors. A study of almost 6,000 middle-aged adults found that having a body fat percentage over 30% significantly increased the incidence of heart failure in both men and women. Body fat can be reduced with a healthy diet and increased physical activity. If you aren’t sure what your body fat percentage is, ask a nutritionist, a personal trainer at your gym, or pick up a Tanita scale from a fitness supply store so that you can monitor it at home.
There are several indicators that can help assess our risk of having a cardiovascular event. Here are the most important bio-markers of heart disease:
Cholesterol – The impact of cholesterol on heart disease is much smaller than previously thought. Nonetheless, it remains a risk factor. When arteries are damaged or inflamed, cholesterol builds up in them reducing blood flow to the heart. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps to remove arterial plaque. Raise HDL with regular exercise & daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids. The old adage “an apple a day…” is not that far off. Soluble fibers such as those found in apples, oatmeal, ground flaxseed and almonds can significantly reduce cholesterol by removing it from the digestive system.
C-Reactive Protein – CRP is an indicator of chronic inflammation somewhere in the body - not necessarily in the arteries; however, inflammation anywhere in the body indicates there is inflammation elsewhere, and CRP is strongly predictive of future heart disease. Omega-3 fats (EPA/DHA) from cold-water fatty fish, as well as turmeric, ginger, garlic, raw nuts and berries help to reduce inflammation.
Triglycerides – A high triglyceride level is a strong predictor of heart disease. In this case, the culprit is a diet high in carbohydrates! Sugar, white bread, cookies, pasta - if your triglyceride levels are elevated, these foods have got to go.
Lipoprotein (a) – Lp(a), a relative of Low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad" cholesterol) encourages the deposit of plaque in the arteries by enhancing the oxidation of LDL. Antioxidants block the effects of oxidation, so include antioxidant-rich foods in your diet such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (think superfoods like blueberries) and even dark chocolate daily.
Fibrinogen – High fibrinogen levels promote clotting in the arteries that impairs blood flow and raises blood pressure. Improve circulation and blood flow by diligently sipping water throughout the day and eating fish (not fried!) and garlic often. Other blood thinners include aspirin, red wine, green tea, ginkgo biloba, olive oil, vitamin E, vitamin A and beta-carotene. The enzyme nattokinase, which is found in the fermented soybean dish natto, is an effective blood thinner and may help to dissolve existing blood clots.
Homocysteine – Homocysteine is an amino acid by-product of protein breakdown. There is a direct positive correlation between high homocysteine levels and the risk of heart attack and stroke. Fortunately, it is one of the easiest risk factors to control. Homocysteine can be reduced by increasing your intake of the B vitamins folic acid (400 mcg daily), vitamins B6 and B12. Taking a multivitamin that includes these vitamins or taking a separate B complex supplement should do the trick.
Arterial stiffness – As we age, we lose collagen - and not just in our skin. Collagen is lost in the arteries too, reducing elasticity in the arterial wall. This can raise blood pressure. A poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking promote collagen loss. Vitamin C, protein, and the mineral silica encourage collagen production.
Studies consistently show the benefits of exercise for those at risk of a heart attack. The type of exercise does not matter - walking is as effective as vigorous exercise - but duration is important. The longer the better. Your risk can be decreased by at least 53% with activity three times per week or more.
The highest frequency of heart attacks occurs at 9 a.m. on Monday morning. That telling statistic is more than enough evidence that stress plays an important role in the health of your heart and arteries. While science continues its attempts to explain why, meditation, deep breathing, and yoga are a tremendous help.
If smoking is your vice, your doctor can suggest a number of new techniques for quitting successfully. Sometimes improving diet and introducing regular exercise first prepares your body and mind for quitting.
Don’t be another unnecessary victim. Begin protecting your heart today.