While you read this, someone in Canada will die.
I'm assuming that it'll take you about seven minutes to read and contemplate the contents of this blog. And during that time, at least one Canadian is statistically destined to die from a stroke or heart attack.
That's how often it happens. And we're all ultimately at risk once we reach middle age.
If you're still relatively young, don't roll your eyes because you don't think this topic is relevant to you. Instead, consider this sobering fact: While a heart attack comes on quickly, cardiovascular disease typically develops over many years, even decades.
If you don't take proper care of yourself, your body's blood flow may eventually become severely obstructed.
So unless you stay extremely fit your whole life, you're going to experience a gradual reduction in the rate of blood flow throughout your body, including your brain, as you age.
Unfortunately, this is a natural and somewhat unavoidable progression. And it's due to a build-up of a waxy substance -- known as plaque -- which begins to accumulate in your arteries as early as childhood.
If you don't take proper care of yourself, your body's blood flow may eventually become severely obstructed. In turn, this will likely set you up for a heart attack.
However, this gradual impairment of your circulatory system can be kept under control with a very healthy lifestyle.
So how will you know if you're in the danger zone already? Some of the most obvious symptoms of a dangerous build-up of plaque include shortness of breath, chest pain, and numbness or tingling in your legs and arms.
If you experience any of these symptoms, get immediate attention at a nearby hospital. Or at least consult your doctor for a thorough check-up.
While not all forms of heart disease are avoidable, here are four things you can do to reduce the odds of developing too much plaque in your arteries:
Maintain a healthy body weight: Being overweight can lead to numerous health risks, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and a cascade of other degenerative diseases.
At the very least, excess weight increases blood pressure and elevates "bad" cholesterol levels -- the kind that leads to plaque in your arteries.
In particular, belly fat can be very problematic by promoting insulin resistance. This negative condition makes it increasingly difficult to lose weight. It's also a precursor for type 2 diabetes.
Also, a build-up of "visceral" belly fat (the internal kind that envelopes your liver and intestines) can be even worse. This hidden health hazard triggers chronic internal inflammation -- which pro-aging. Worst still, it can also cause heart disease.
Exercise regularly: Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes every day, even if it's just fast-paced walking or doing some yoga. Ideally, you should also work out with weights at least twice a week.
Even if you can only manage something far less strenuous, it all helps. Truth be told, all forms of exercise make your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood throughout your body.
Exercise also helps reduce blood pressure. In fact, studies show that regular moderate physical activity (at least twice a week) can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 40%.
Eat a healthy diet: Choose a diet that's high in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and lean proteins. Avoid one that's full of saturated fat, sugar, and salt (think processed/junk foods).
This will minimize your risk of being weakened by high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. All of these conditions should be avoided at all costs as they increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Avoid cigarettes: People who smoke cigarettes are two to three times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers.
Then there's lung cancer, emphysema, and a whole laundry list of other ills caused by this entirely avoidable and treatable addiction. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about the various options available to assist you in quitting.
In summary, if you want to avoid the threat of becoming unfortunate statistic -- at least not any time soon -- you need to take good care of your hard-working heart.
To achieve this, all you have to do is watch your weight, get some regular exercise, eat healthily, and avoid cigarettes.
Avoiding cardiovascular disease and an eventual cardiac arrest isn't just in your own best interests. You also owe it to your loved ones, too, and anyone else who depends on you -- financially or otherwise. Now take that advice to heart!
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In this global study, adults over 50 who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes who walked an additional 2,000 steps a day—about 20 minutes of brisk walking—reduced their risk of having a cardiovascular “event,” such as a heart attack or stroke, by 10 percent over the next six years. “Other than not smoking, nothing comes close to physical activity for prevention,” says Dr. Church. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of papers support it.” Achieving the goal of being physically active for 150 minutes a week, including strength training a couple of days a week, can reduce your cardiovascular risk by about 25 percent, he says. “There’s a dose response, which means the more you exercise, the more you benefit.” The biggest benefit, though, comes from going from sedentary to mildly active, such as walking 10 minutes a day. Says Dr. Church, “The biggest bang is just getting off the couch.”
In a meta-analysis of 22 studies, British researchers found that people who ate seven more grams of dietary fiber had a nine percent lower risk of heart disease. How much is that? A medium apple has 5 grams of dietary fiber, as does a half cup of cooked broccoli. A half cup of cooked lentils: 8 grams. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains are all good sources of fiber. “Fiber has beneficial effects on blood glucose and cholesterol, and it may keep your gastrointestinal tract healthier, reducing inflammation,” says Dr. Church. “Eating more fiber is also a marker of a healthier diet.”
“It’s pretty powerful,” says Dr. Church. “Drinking in moderation cuts your risk of heart disease by about 25 percent.” That’s defined as no more than one daily drink for a woman, two for a man. Not everyone can drink moderately, of course, but if you can, research shows it’s heart healthy. “It relaxes your blood vessels, so you can’t form a clot while alcohol’s on board,” says Dr. Church. “Any alcohol has benefits, but wine has a little more,” says Dr. Church. The healthiest pattern: “A drink or two every couple of days.”
The Agency for Healthcare Research Quality, a federal research agency, recently concluded that simply taking a multivitamin/multimineral pill won’t reduce your risk of heart disease. “It’s no surprise,” says Dr. Church. After all, preventing heart disease isn’t what multis are built to do—they’re to shore up nutrient deficiencies. “While the evidence for heart disease prevention isn’t there,” says Dr. Church, “taking multis won’t hurt you.” As for research that low vitamin D is associated with a 27 percent increased risk of developing heart disease, Dr. Church thinks it’s simply a marker for an inactive lifestyle, meaning since most people get their vitamin D from the sun, “people with high vitamin D levels are outside more—and probably more active,” he says. If you do have low D levels, Dr. Church supports taking supplements. But whether it will affect heart health isn’t fully clear. What he does think makes a difference: Omega 3 fatty acids, found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon. The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults eat at least two fish meals a week. But if you don’t, won’t, or can’t, you may want to consider a 1-gram Omega supplement that includes both EPA and DHA, two forms of Omega 3s found in fish. While the heart disease preventive benefits of taking Omega 3 supplements hasn’t been established, says Dr. Church, “there is a lot of strong epidemiological evidence for Omega 3s. I’m a big proponent — I believe there’s value there.”
This one has a catch—it’s about people who already have heart disease. A recent analysis found that in people with existing heart disease, getting the flu shot reduces the risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack by 36 percent. “Getting the flu puts great stress on your body and increases the risk of having another heart attack,” says Dr. Church. A flu shot is a good idea for everyone—it’s not too late since flu peaks around the end of February, beginning of March!—and if you’re at high cardiovascular risk, or already have heart disease, that little jab could be a lifesaver.
A major Spanish study found that men and women aged 55 to 80 who ate a Mediterranean diet were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, or die from heart disease, over the next five years. The most protective elements: olive oil as the primary fat, moderate alcohol (mostly from wine), lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and fish, and low consumption of meat. Just this week, a new American study of firefighters from the Midwest who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had lower cardiovascular risk factors: less belly fat, lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and higher “good” HDL cholesterol. The great thing about Mediterranean studies is that they capture not just one healthy element but a pattern—a lifestyle. “We should look at risk factor clusters, and the Mediterranean lifestyle captures that,” says Dr. Church. Add the physical activity that’s part of a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle, and it’s really the big picture.
Talk about big picture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that if everyone didn’t smoke, ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, achieved a healthy weight, and got regular checkups so they could control risk factors such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, then death from heart disease would fall by 25 percent. That’s 200,000 lives saved – each year.