Heart disease is still the number one killer for men and women in the US. Luckily, it can mostly be prevented. Our heart is one of the most vital organs in our bodies, it acts as a pump to deliver freshly oxygenated blood to our other organs and muscles. “Did you know that the heart beats approximately 100,000 times a day, over 36 million times in one year and about 2.9 billion times in the lifetime of someone who lives to be 80?” (Exercise physiology for health care professional pg 216) That’s a lot of work for one organ! Which is why it is vital that we do everything we can to make sure it pumps as efficiently as possible.
So what are some of the factors we can control to help prevent heart disease and improve our overall heart health?
Diet: Diets high in processed foods have high sodium and sugar levels, and low nutrient content. These cause high blood pressure, increased harmful fats in the bloodstream, high cholesterol and obesity. Keeping our nutrition to unprocessed whole foods including lean protein, lots of vegetables, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats can keep our blood pressure and cholesterol at a healthy level. (for the majority of people)
Smoking: Contributes to high blood pressure (hypertension) and injury to the vascular wall of the heart. These injuries create an area for plaque to build up narrowing and hardening the walls of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which further contributes to hypertension. Smoking can also cause diseases in the lungs and over time lead to decrease oxygen levels which overloads the heart causing heart failure.
High blood pressure: Our blood pressure reading is expressed in two numbers, usually something like 120/70 (the ideal blood pressure). The top number is our Systolic Pressure (or peak pressure during the pumping phase) and the bottom number is our Diastolic Pressure (pressure measured during the heart filling-or relaxed stage). If these numbers are high, we are diagnosed with high blood pressure. This is a problem because the heart muscle has to continually work against that higher resistance which, over time, stresses our heart muscle. The muscle of the heart wall hypertrophies (gets bigger) and the chamber of the heart (left ventricle) gets smaller and more stiff, so the muscle cannot relax enough during the filling stage. These changes in the heart muscles makes our hearts less efficient at ejecting blood to the rest of our body.
Lack of exercise: Sedentary behavior has recently been labeled the “new smoking”. Studies have shown that not engaging in physical activity can be worse of your body than smoking. It is recommended that individuals get 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity 5 days/week. This includes a mix of both resistance and cardiovascular training.
Benefits of heavy resistance training: Resistance training requires heart to contract more forcefully with each beat which, over time, increases the thickness of the heart wall, but the difference between increasing heart wall size with exercise vs high blood pressure, is the size and elasticity of the left ventricular chamber does not change at all. The elasticity remains the same or even slightly better and the wall of the heart muscle is stronger making the output to the rest of the body more voluminous and efficient. (your heart doesn’t have to work as hard during normal activity)
With aerobic training. There is a large increase in stroke volume (amount of blood ejected) out of Left ventricular chamber to the rest of the body.
The combination of both aerobic and resistance training makes heart stronger and more efficient.
High cholesterol: Cholesterol is broken into:
HDL (Good cholesterol- may play a role in protecting against heart disease) and
LDL and VLDL (bad cholesterol-contributes to development of atherosclerosis.)
A poor ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol can lead to inflammation of the arteries and cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries of our heart and other areas in our body.
Diet and aerobic exercise have been proven to increase HDL’s anti-inflammatory properties. (https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/elevating-your-hdl-game)
Diabetes: Over time, diabetes leads to increased atherosclerosis, diabetes related hypertension, increased VLDL and decreased HDL in bloodstream, and obesity.
Other risk factors you should be aware of, but can’t be controlled are:
Age: Risk increases with age
Gender: ”Men generally face a much higher risk of heart disease than women. They also tend to suffer heart attacks earlier in life. After women reach menopause however, they are just as likely to have heart attacks as their male counterparts of equal age; they are also more likely to die from such cardiac complications than the latter.” -http://www.myheart.org.sg/article/about-the-heart-and-heart-disease/risk-factors/gender/199
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of heart disease and to seek immediate medical attention should you or a family member experience any of them. It is also important to know that women’s symptoms can oftentimes present differently than men’s symptoms so there are two lists below.
Signs & symptoms of heart disease
Signs in women
If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
DISCOMFORT IN OTHER AREAS OF THE UPPER BODY
Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
SHORTNESS OF BREATH
With or without chest discomfort.
May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Learn more about heart attack symptoms